Fact-finding: Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in Phnom Penh. Fact-finding: Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in Phnom Penh. Photo: Reuters
Australian Greens senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, says she has hardened her opposition to the Abbott government's resettlement of refugees in Cambodia after touring slums in the riverside capital Phnom Penh, declaring the plan "madness, absolute madness".
Shunned by Cambodia's leaders during the first days of a week-long visit to the impoverished country, Ms Hanson-Young said the "mind boggles as to why the Australian government believes Cambodia, a poor country, a very poor country, is an appropriate place to dump refugees".
Ms Hanson-Young said she has been shown how about 85 refugees and asylum seekers already living in Phnom Penh have no rights or identification papers, which means they are denied access to health and education and even more mundane aspects of life like the right to own a motorbike.
She said this has forced them to rely on limited services on offer by non-governmental organisations, including the Jesuit Refugee Service. Future Australian arrivals could expect a similar fate.
"The refugees that I spoke to here have no intention of staying in Cambodia, they feel like there is no life for them here, there is no future because they are not given any kind of equal standing," she said.
Ms Hanson-Young said even the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has admitted the refugees already in the country have been unable to integrate effectively into the community.
"And the Australian government is suggesting it can be done in 12 months," she said.
Under the plan announced at a champagne-sipping ceremony in Phnom Penh in September, Cambodia will accept an unstated number of asylum seekers who have been classified as refugees by the UNHCR and who volunteer to resettle in Cambodia, one of Asia's poorest nations.
They would be offered accommodation, food, training and possibly loans to start up small businesses over at least 12 months before leaving Phnom Penh for a new life in Cambodia's provinces.
Australia has promised Cambodia $40 million in additional aid over four years for agreeing to the plan despite there being no guarantee any refugees in Australian-run detention centres will agree to resettle in the country.
"I would imagine the Australian government would want to send as many as they can," Ms Hanson-Young said.
Ms Hanson-Young's tour of Phnom Penh included meetings with aid workers tasked with looking after refugees already living in the capital.
She also met opposition politicians but had so far not been able to meet Sar Kheng, Cambodia's Interior Minister who signed off on the deal with Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.
"What has struck me, coming here, is how secretive the Cambodian government has been about the details of this deal," she said.
"We know the Abbott government has been incredibly secretive about this policy back home in Australia and they have found their partner in crime when it comes to covering up what is really going on in keeping their respective publics in the dark," she said.
Ms Hanson-Young arrived in Cambodia after the arrest last week of 15 civil rights activists and opposition politicians which analysts said highlighted the country's reputation for corruption, impunity for a powerful and rich political elite and political intolerance.
Ms Hanson-Young said Australia has remained "noticeably silent" on these issues.
She said she was told during a Senate estimates meeting a few weeks ago the Abbott government hopes to see the first refugees arrive in Cambodia by the end of the year.
"This is why I got on my bike and got here as quickly as I could because I really wanted to see what conditions people were going to be living in," she said.
Mr Morrison on Monday criticised what Ms Hanson-Young has called a "fact-finding mission" to Cambodia, saying she had gone to the country at the wrong time.
"The on-ground arrangements are not in place at the moment and it is still going to be some time before they get in place," Mr Morrison said on Sydney radio.
"So she will go over there, she will whinge and complain like she always does and people will ignore her as they should," he said.
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