PHNOM PENH/SYDNEY (Reuters) - Cambodia said on Monday it did not intend to accept any more refugees from a South Pacific detention center under an agreement with Australia, dealing a blow to the controversial resettlement scheme criticized by rights groups.
Australia has vowed to stop asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia and Sri Lanka and landing on its shores, instead intercepting boats and shifting the people to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Australia and Cambodia agreed last September that some refugees from Nauru would be resettled in Cambodia in exchange for Australian aid, but only four have arrived since then.
“We have no plans to receive more refugees from Nauru,” Cambodian Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak told Reuters.
“With the situation of our country like this, we can’t receive hundreds or thousands of them. The less we receive, the better.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop denied the deal had collapsed.
“Cambodia is committed to a regional solution and has committed through a memorandum of understanding with the Australian government to resettle some asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees,” Bishop told reporters in Sydney.
“It wishes to harness the skills of foreign workers and in this way, they can resettle people into Cambodia and help boost their GDP.”
As part of the deal announced last year, Cambodia will get A$40 million ($28.56 million) in additional aid regardless of how many asylum seekers it takes in.
Rights groups have condemned Australia for trying to resettle refugees in poorer countries like Cambodia, which is frequently in the spotlight for human rights abuses and with an economy less than one percent the size of Australia’s.
A spokesman for Australia opposition, Richard Marles, described the Cambodia deal as “an expensive joke”.
The three Iranians and one Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar, who traveled to Cambodia in June under the plan, have been living in a villa in Phnom Penh provided by the International Organization for Migration and funded by Australia.
The IOM declined to comment on the Cambodian government’s statement, saying the refugees were continuing language training and cultural orientation and had asked for privacy.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said he expected the Cambodian agreement to be honored.
“There are other people in Nauru now who are prepared to go to Cambodia and we’re working through the detail of that with the officials.”
Editing by Robert Birsel