Cambodia + 1 more

Cambodia close to signing off on refugee deal with Australia, says government

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By South-East Asia correspondent Samantha Hawley

VIDEO: Ouch Borith says Cambodia will only accept refugees who agree to be transferred (Image: Reuters/Samrang Pring) (ABC News)

The Cambodian government is in the final stages of considering a refugee resettlement agreement with Australia and wants to sign a memorandum of understanding as soon as possible.

Cambodia's secretary of state in the foreign ministry, Ouch Borith, has told the ABC a government study of the proposal has been completed and Cambodia will deliver a counter offer to Australia within days.

The details of the negotiations are being kept secret by both nations but it could see up to 1,000 genuine refugees sent from Australia to one of the world's poorest countries.

Mr Borith would not be drawn on how much Australia would need to pay Cambodia to take refugees from Nauru, how many it was willing to accept, or where they would live.

AUDIO: Ouch Borith discusses negotiations with Australia (AM)

"I cannot let you know exactly the number of the refugees that I can receive, because for one, if we decided to receive refugees, it will be our responsibility to take care of all the refugees that come to Cambodia," Mr Borith said.

He said officials wanted to travel to the Pacific nation to oversee the refugee assessment process, and Cambodia would only accept refugees who voluntarily agreed to go there.

"Cambodia wishes to share its experiences and the responsibility with Australia on this issue," Mr Borith said.

"So far the working group already finished [its] studying on the draft proposed by Australia and I think that maybe soon, maybe a few days, maybe next week ... we'll send our counter-proposal to the Australian side."

Cambodia is a signatory to the refugee convention but in 2009 it forcibly deported 20 ethnic Uighur back to China.

However, Mr Borith said any refugees resettled under a deal struck between Cambodia and Australia would be safe.

"Different story, different from the refugees that we have discussed with our Australian friends to ... settle here," he said.

"The Uighur come here illegally. Far away from China to Cambodia, how many thousand miles is Cambodia?

"They come here illegally. We can say that they [are] all illegal immigrants. That is different from the refugees that we discussed today with Australia."

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who held talks in Phnom Penh last month, said the potential resettlement deal is progressing well.

Mr Morrison has not revealed details of negotiations, but has told Macquarie Radio that Cambodia wants the arrangement to work.

"They are taking our proposal seriously. We are working together with them and constructively and we have been engaging constructively with the UNHCR on this in Geneva and talking to them about our plans," he said.

"What this is all about is ensuring we have got more countries in the region actually participating in resettlement."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he would welcome a decision by Cambodia to accept asylum seekers from Australia.

Human rights groups raise concern for refugee safety

AUDIO: The refugee plan raises concern in Phnom Penh (AM)

The negotiations between the two countries to resettle refugees has attracted criticism from human rights groups.

The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees has condemned the proposal, saying Cambodia is a vulnerable nation which is still recovering from civil war and unable to provide for its own citizens.

However, the UN's deputy high commissioner for human rights Flavia Pansieri said the UN would be willing to provide "support to ensure that standards are met".

Rohingya man Mohammed Ibrahim, who fled violence in Myanmar, is one of 69 refugees living in Cambodia.

He said he had lived in one room in the basement of an apartment block for the past four years, and struggled to find food.

"Cambodia is, right now, not ready to take any refugees from other countries," he said.

The Buddhist monk and self-described human rights defender said Cambodia's endemic corruption would mean Australian money would not go to those who needed it.

Transparency International executive director Kol Preap does not think Cambodia is ready either.

"We find this deal interesting, also surprising for the Cambodian government. I think they are more interested in the financial incentive that would be provided by the Australian Government," Mr Preap said.

"What we are about most is ensuring that the money that is given is being managed properly."

However, Mr Borith dismissed the concerns about the plan.

"I have no comment on what is said about human rights in Cambodia by the activists of civil society," he said.

Cambodia, which in the 1970s and 1980s saw a huge exodus of refugees fleeing war and starvation, is one of the world's poorest countries and has been criticised by human rights groups over its record on rights.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation