Why resettling asylum seekers in Cambodia is fraught with risk

Foreign minister Julie Bishop has reportedly asked the Cambodian government if it would resettle some of the asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. EPA/Mak Remissa

Amid the ongoing bad news about Manus Island has come the revelation that the Australian government has approached Cambodia with a view to resettling some asylum seekers in the impoverished nation.

So far, foreign minister Julie Bishop has provided no public details of the request; the Greens immediately condemned the idea in line with their established policy position; while Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles said the opposition may be open to the proposal:

We’ve got to see exactly what is being proposed … and the opposition will have a good look at whatever that proposition is.

Despite the lack of available detail, this development raises several issues worth reflecting upon.

Spreading soft diplomacy

The move is predictable in one respect. Cambodia is a long-time beneficiary of substantial Australian foreign aid; the AusAID office in Phnom Penh was one of the now-defunct organisation’s largest anywhere.

In the current financial year, the official Cambodia aid figure is A$85.3 million (as against $84 million in the previous year). That figure will leap dramatically should this proposal proceed – as the Papua New Guinea refugee resettlement arrangement demonstrates.

That base figure will be boosted by other special considerations, such as additional payments for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, which has faced persistent financial problems as the ruling Cambodian government seeks to delay proceedings. Former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr visited Cambodia several times to announce additional funding.

Australia, along with myriad aid agencies and NGOs around the world, continue to pour billions of dollars into a troubled country still trying to deal with its post-Khmer Rouge genocide history and culture.

Relationship implications

Australia’s long interest in Cambodia aside, the Coalition government will undoubtedly (or should) be thinking hard about the possible ramifications of this proposed relationship.

The first is that since the widely disputed elections last year, the Cambodian government – led by prime minister Hun Sen – has been under pressure for a number of reasons. These include:

  • the validity of the country’s democratic process;
  • the leakage of aid monies (the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank are just two of the most notable agencies trying to confront this);
  • the relatively slow pace of development among the bulk of Cambodia’s 14 million population;
  • the minimalist progress in vital areas like health and education.

Some aid workers on the ground argue that these things take time and that Cambodia is at least moving in the right direction. But for many organisations, the return on investment must be depressingly low.

The Hun Sen government has a complex history. Senior leaders have roots in the Khmer Rouge, but switched allegiance to Vietnam when that country intervened. More recently – and significantly – the Cambodian government has become closely allied to China. Australia will be well aware of the strong geopolitical implications of that relationship.

When Cambodia chaired the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on rotation in 2012, its actions caused considerable friction. It had a clear adherence to China’s wishes on important matters like disputes over the ownership of islands in the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.

The tension was such that one meeting broke up without a communiqué being issued for the first time in the history of ASEAN meetings dating back to the 1960s. This is all on the back of aid and investment sums from China to Cambodia now in the billions of dollars per year.

Strategic implications

This background alone places the Australian government in an interesting position. There is a prevailing sense that Australia has lost dynamic interest in southeast Asia generally and ASEAN in particular. This has prompted calls for that position to be rectified or to at least provide an alternative to the strong focus on the United States.

If Australia is to be better placed with ASEAN, a stronger connection to Cambodia might well be problematic. Cambodia is geographically at the hub of southeast Asia and has ongoing tensions with countries like Thailand and Vietnam over border disputes, along with its open support for China.

There is also the imminent 2015 ASEAN Economy Community agreement, which ostensibly will open borders on trade and services and other fields. Cambodia’s position is not strong in this respect given its tardy growth. And where will China stand on this relationship with Australia, given that relationship’s own choppy history of the past few years?

The regional geopolitics are important, then, but rank well behind the issue of corruption for some observers. Transparency International ranks Cambodia at 160 of 177 nations in terms of governmental transparency with a score 20 out of 100. Budget openness is virtually non-existent.

A lack of transparency and institutional corruption remain serious problems for Cambodia. EPA/Mak Remissa

There have long been reports about the scale, extent and networks of corruption at high levels in Cambodia. One Global Witness report received particular attention for its investigation of illegal logging.

A debate can be had about what has to be tolerated in order to make progress, but the Australian government would surely have to insist on due process in the allocation of what will be substantial sums of taxpayers’ money if a resettlement arrangement was to go ahead.

That is significant enough. But the consequences of much of the corruption is ongoing, including widespread poverty, illness, illiteracy and heavy-handed treatment of the growing labour force. Recent demonstrations among lowly paid garment factory workers resulted in several deaths after the army was called in.

Conditions in Cambodia remain dire. The average annual income is about $US835 per year. This is in stark contrast to the vast wealth of leading business tycoons linked to the government, whose own leaders have similarly vast wealth.

To transfer asylum seekers into this environment will require considerable investment as well as constant oversight from Australia during a period of political fragility in Cambodia.

In these circumstances, it would take an enormous leap of faith on the part of the Australian government to believe that a “Cambodia Solution” would be worth the risk and the investment.