Australia confirmed Thursday it will sign an asylum-seeker resettlement deal with Cambodia in a move slammed by human rights groups as violating the country’s international obligations.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will be in Phnom Penh on Friday to seal the deal, which could see some asylum-seekers currently held in offshore detention camps by Australia transferred to the Southeast Asian nation.
The agreement came as the Australian government tabled a bill in parliament to reintroduce temporary visas for other asylum-seekers currently held on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, or in mainland facilities.
The bill also removes direct references to the UN Refugee Convention from the Migration Act, replacing it with an Australian interpretation of the nation’s protection obligations.
Morrison said the Cambodia arrangement would be “strictly voluntary” for refugees and the resettlement would be permanent.
“The arrangement is strictly voluntary,” he said at a press conference. “Anyone who chooses to go to Cambodia will have chosen themselves to go to Cambodia.”
Morrison said those who went to Cambodia would be given support “designed to make them self-reliant as quickly as possible”.
“They will be afforded all the same rights under Cambodian law and those that exist under the Refugee Convention and there is no cap on what has been discussed here.”
The minister did not provide further details about the nature of the measures, how many refugees could be transferred and how much Cambodia would be paid under the deal.
Human Rights Watch said the arrangement placed refugees at risk and Australia “will be failing to meet the terms of its agreement because Cambodia is not a safe third country”.
“Although Cambodia is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has failed to protect refugees and asylum-seekers, returning them to countries where they faced persecution,” it said.
The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also previously criticized the plans but was not immediately available for comment Thursday.
The temporary visa arrangements, when passed by parliament, would help clear the backlog of asylum-seekers who arrived in Australia by boat last year, Morrison said.
About 1,550 potential refugees, including 436 children and their families and 32 unaccompanied minors, could be eligible for the visas, which range between three to five years.
Under Canberra’s immigration policy, boatpeople arriving since July 2013 have been sent to camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the remote Pacific state of Nauru.
They are resettled in those countries if their refugee claims are approved.
Morrison said the new temporary visas would not apply to asylum-seekers held on Nauru or Manus Island.
Only one boatload of asylum-seekers has reached the Australian mainland since December, compared to almost daily arrivals previously under the Labor administration, with hundreds of people dying en route.