The Australian government has said a deal to resettle refugees in Cambodia is on track, despite media reports to the contrary.Under an agreement signed in September last year, Australia is paying Cambodia to take in refugees rejected from its detention centre on Nauru island.But so far only four people in Nauru have volunteered to go to.Cambodian media quoted a government spokesperson on Sunday as saying it had no plans to bring in any more.Australia has set aside about AU$55.5m ($40m; £25m) for the deal, including a $40m aid package, which means almost AU$14m per refugee so far, according to figures from the Australia Associated Press.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak was quoted in the Cambodian Dailyat the weekend as saying the four refugees were “enjoying their life” in Cambodia.But he said: “We don’t have any plans to import more refugees from Nauru to Cambodia. I think the less we receive the better.”
Speaking in Sydney on Monday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop denied the deal was collapsing.
“You’re relying on an alleged statement of one official,” she told reporters, adding she had recently had “productive” discussions on the issue with her Cambodian counterpart.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Australia had “a level of confidence” in the agreement and “we hope a lot more will follow the four”.
Australia expected the deal to be honoured, ABC quoted him as saying, “and we’re working with Cambodians to that end”.
But the opposition has seized on the reports, with Labor’s shadow immigration spokesman Richard Marles calling the Cambodia deal an “expensive joke”.
A “fact sheet” on life in Cambodia given out on Nauru serves to act as an inducement.
It paints an implausibly rosy picture of life, describing the country as “rapidly developing” with “all the freedoms of a democratic society”, as well as “a high standard of health care with multiple hospitals”, and no “violent crime or stray dogs”.
What Australia tells its own citizens about Cambodia is rather different.
“Health and medical services in Cambodia are generally of a very poor quality and very limited in the services they can provide,” Australia’s foreign affairs department says on its website.
Australia does not allow asylum seekers or refugees onto its shores, instead detaining them at facilities on the island nation of Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
The four people – three Iranians and one Rohingya – were the only refugees in Nauru to volunteer for the controversial scheme.
The UN has spoken out against the resettlement agreement and Cambodia has, in previous years, been criticised for its own record on helping refugees.
Rights groups have accused Australia of shirking international responsibility by not taking in refugees.