Protesters in Phnom Penh hold signs during a demonstration against Cambodia's plans to resettle intercepted refugees. Protesters in Phnom Penh hold signs during a demonstration against Cambodia's plans to resettle intercepted refugees. Photo: Reuters
Bangkok: Cambodian authorities frequently extort money from asylum seekers living in the impoverished nation, according to an investigation that raises new concerns about Australia's plan to send refugees there.
Asylum seekers have also told of how they are targets of discrimination in the country, often paying inflated prices for food, work equipment and basic necessities because they are not Cambodian.
"There is a foreigner price and a local price," a refugee told Human Rights Watch investigators. "But we can't afford the foreigner price."
A Sri Lankan refugee said people call him a terrorist and use offensive words against him because he is an ethnic Tamil.
Human Rights Watch has released a report detailing how asylum seekers and refugees living in Cambodia face hardships including difficulties obtaining employment, denial of access to education, substandard access to health services, extortion and corruption by local officials.
Refugees said fear of mistreatment by Cambodian authorities kept them from speaking out or joining organisations to bring complaints.
The report's release follows similar claims by Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young during a visit to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh this week.
Ms Hanson-Young described sending refugees to Cambodia as "madness", saying what she had seen in Phnom Penh's slums had hardened her opposition to the plan, which has been condemned by human rights groups, refugee advocates and Cambodia's opposition MPs.
The Abbott government is paying almost $40 million in additional aid over four years to Cambodia in return for the country accepting an unstated number of refugees who volunteer to resettle outside Phnom Penh.
They will be offered accommodation, training, food and loans to start small businesses over their first 12 months in the country.
Human Rights Watch called on the Australian government to press Cambodian authorities to implement key reforms to improve treatment of refugees in Cambodia before transferring any people from the tiny Pacific island of Nauru who are being encouraged to take up the Cambodian option.
"The Australian government shouldn't make the refugees in Nauru suffer further by dumping them in a place unable to adequately resettle or reintegrate them," said Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch's Australian director.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 of 63 refugees living in Cambodia and spoke to refugee and migrant support organisations, human rights groups and United Nations agencies.
Years after arriving in Cambodia – one of Asia's poorest nations – not one refugee had received a Cambodian residence card or citizenship, depriving them of availability to basic services.
The refugees are issued only a "parkas" proclamation by the Ministry of Interior that confirms their right to stay in Cambodia.
But the proclamation cannot be used for many official purposes.
"This piece of paper is absolutely useless," a refugee told Human Rights Watch.
"To get a job, a driver's licence, open a bank account, buy a motorbike or even receive a wire transfer, you need to show a passport, not this piece of paper."
Some refugees said they are in a dire financial situation and would be unable to survive in Cambodia without support of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Refugees told of how they rarely go outside because when they do they often face extortion, bribery and corruption.
A self-employed street bread seller said: "We have to pay bribes just to be able to sell food."
Another refugee said the main problem in Cambodia was discrimination and mistreatment based on a person's financial status.
"But it is also worse if you are a refugee with the wrong skin colour and not the right religion," one said.
"Money will buy you everything, but if you haven't got money then you can't protect yourself and can't protest about discrimination and mistreatment."
One refugee had advice for refugees on Nauru: "This is a corrupt country. You will not find jobs. We have been here more than two years and we have no money and not enough to eat. It's better to wait in Nauru. It's a very, very bad life here in Cambodia … there is no future."