In Cambodia, dealing with refugees remains hot issue

Sitting left to right, Brooke, Siphan, Coghlin, Tai.

Sitting left to right, Jim Brooke, Phay Siphan, Denise Coghlin, Billy Tai.

During a panel discussion last week, four individuals failed as expected to arrive at unanimous agreement about the world’s refugees in general and, in particular, the four who have arrived in Cambodia from Australia.

Former New York Times journalist, Jim Brooke, a friend who is editor of the year-old Khmer Times newspaper, stuck to the theme of a column in which he denigrated the men, women and children who braved the perils of crossing the high seas to enter Australia from distant shores.

Those souls have made it only to the independent nation of Nauru, where some 1,000 of them are held in a detention center run by Australia in what are described as deplorable conditions akin to a concentration camp’s.

Saying that Australia has the fifth highest per capital income in the world, Brooke characterized the migrants as individuals merely in search of a better life, not trying to escape torture or other human rights abuses. They have been called “country shoppers” and, in the extreme, “terrorists.”

“They are economic refugees,” he declared. “It is no accident that they focus on Australia.”

Shouted one of many Australians in a crowd that I estimate at 150, “Rubbish!”

Human rights consultant Billy Tai, one of the panelists, also strongly disagreed with Brooke: “They are not country shoppers.”

A major issue, contended another panelist, Denise Coghlin, centers on the 1951 Refugee Convention, which does not cover migrants in, she said, “abject poverty.”  She heads the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia.

Certainly, it is true that a significant number of the detainees who have been turned away from Australia may well be criminals, psychopaths and otherwise unsavory characters.  It also is true that nations have the right to determine who they want to admit from beyond their borders. Although I understand the validity of that legal argument, I question its wisdom and the extent of its compassion.

Brooke elaborated on his position the other day in a second Khmer Times column following last week’s event at Meta House, a kind of community center that is popular especially with expats and that offers films, music, a cafe and discussions such as the one on June 25.

The editor is not a lone voice in the world in supporting Australia; in fact, most Australians agree with him. But he was seemingly without sympathy from anyone in the room, including expats from Down Under.

Detaining a single asylum seeker on Manus or Nauru off Australia’s coast costs $400,000 per year, according to a Sydney refugee advocacy organization, which says that detention in Australia costs $239,000 per year. “By contrast, allowing asylum seekers to live in the community while their claims are processed costs just $12,000 per year, one twentieth of the cost of the offshore camps, and even less if they are allowed the right to work,” the community activist organization contends.

In addition, Australia has turned back at least one boat carrying migrants, paying the captain and crew tens of thousands of dollars to go away. In other words, it bribes them to keep the passengers from entering the country’s waters.

As Brooke put it in Monday’s column, Australia’s approach is neither offensive nor unusual:

Too proud to say they are copying Australia’s “Stop the Boats” policy, the Europeans are doing just that.

Major European powers have agreed to use satellites to detect, in real time, migrants leaving the shores of North Africa. Navy ships standing by would force the boats back to shore, all occupants would disembark, then the boats would be sunk.

Intercepting boatloads of undocumented immigrants is nothing new. For two decades, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces have conducted exercises on how to stop the boatloads of people expected to flee North Korea once the Kim family dynasty collapses.

Tony Abbott essentially bribed Cambodia as well in order to ameliorate Australia’s refugee problem.  That nation is paying $35 million ostensibly to help this impoverished country screen, educate and acculturate a mere four Nauru detainees so far over many months of deal making and logistical planning.  Since Cambodia has proved unable to take care of millions of its own or to handle asylum seekers from Vietnam, the payment is beyond cheeky: It defies logic.

Unusual for a public panel discussion, the government also was represented, with Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan answering questions from the audience.  Asked what has happened to the millions of dollars, he responded in a way that drew not a few snickers from an audience familiar with widespread corruption. Said he:

You don’t know, I don’t know either.

To all accounts, the International Organization for Migration has ensconced the refugees from Rohingya and Iran in a villa, seen that language lessons are being provided and otherwise pampered them in an attempt to integrate them into Cambodian society. After a year of resettlement activities, they will be on their own. What will happen to them then?

There has been no word of other detainees headed this way who are, therefore, more willing to chance a decent quality of  life in Cambodia than in the nations they left behind. There obviously is some merit to their reluctance based on this country’s dismal record of dealing with the Montagnards from Vietnam.

“We see refugees as humans and as human resources,” Siphan asserted disingenuously, adding that he himself had been a refugee in the U.S. as a result of the Khmer Rouge terrors. “They are not animals. They can live with us.”  He added that Cambodia has “a big heart.”

Recycle 3

Women and children pick trash all over Cambodia to make enough money to survive.

Coghlan, an Australian, called for “a new set of principles” to govern asylum seekers arriving in rich countries. She went on to rebut Brooke’s statement that Australia’s “stop the boats” policy had worked. “It worked for people in my country who have somehow lost their sense of hospitality, compassion and the principle to welcome the stranger,” she said, insisting that the policy hardly worked for the stranded asylum seekers.

(Strictly speaking, many of the so-called refugees are more accurately termed “asylum seekers.” They become refugees after their claim for that status has been definitely evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  An important exception is when there is a mass exodus from a country for reasons that are evident, thereby causing members of the group to be defined as “prima facie” refugees.)

To my mind, the question is this: If individuals suffer even from their own mistakes, what response is appropriate?

In the United States, for example, we help drug addicts, others who have taken the wrong path and the mentally ill. To this liberal, such a response amounts to a humanitarian effort, a moral one.  What makes the migrants so different, so unworthy of a sympathetic understanding of their plight, self-imposed or not?

The number of migrants seeking to enter Australia and nations in Europe pales in comparison with populations of countries, relatively wealthy countries, that may offer a route to a life better than the ones from which they risk everything to escape.

I don’t see my position as inconsistent with Brooke’s view that nations have a right to decide whom to admit.  Let them!  But let them appreciate the consequences of refusing entry to those who have, in Jim Brooke’s word, “gambled” so much — their very lives — to get there in the expectation of finding doors that are open to opportunity.

Admittedly, the situation creates a dilemma, though I think Australia’s policy is misguided on financial grounds alone.  How can a heartless response be defensible in the face of the hardships visited on the vast majority of asylum seekers whose modest hope is for nothing more than this: to work to achieve a life worth living in Australia?


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