Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has refused to provide any details about talks in Cambodia that could see Australian-bound asylum seekers sent to the impoverished country.
Mr Morrison’s visit to Phnom Penh, the second by a Coalition frontbencher to Cambodia in just over a month, is fuelling speculation that Australia will try to strike a deal to resettle refugees in one of south-east Asia’s poorest nations.
Mr Morrison met on Thursday with Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
But during a 24-hour stay in the Cambodian capital, Mr Morrison attempted to keep away from media scrutiny, refusing to speak with a reporter from the Phnom Penh Post at his hotel before checking out Friday morning.
After a visit by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in February, it was revealed that the Abbott government wanted to send a small group of asylum seekers to live in the country at a time when its prime minister, Hun Sen, was overseeing a brutal crackdown on dissent.
A spokeswoman for Mr Morrison said that the Minister was “in Cambodia to further discussions on regional co-operation on people smuggling issues, following on from the earlier visit by the Minister for Foreign Affairs”.
“Australia has ongoing engagement with countries across our region on strengthening border protection and deterring the illegal movement of people across borders,” she said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in Canberra on Friday that Australia’s talks with Cambodia were about what the two countries could do to crack down on people smuggling.“We’re always talking to our regional partners under the Bali process,” Mr Abbott said.
“People smuggling is a serious regional problem and we like to stay in touch with all of our partners in the Bali process and that’s what this is.”
Mr Abbott said ‘‘whether Cambodia were to accept people is really a matter for Cambodia’’.
“But the point is people smuggling is a regional problem,” he said.
“It needs to be dealt with in a regional way and any support and co-operation that other countries can give to Australia is obviously very welcome.”
Australian embassy officials in Cambodia did not respond to requests for comment.
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said he had “no idea” whether a deal had been reached between the two countries.
Cambodia had no history of accepting asylum seekers in such numbers, he added.
“So far we don’t have a lot of experience with that, [I mean] when it comes to a holding centre,” he said, adding that he was not aware of policy being created to build such facilities.
Asked about a deal, other government officials said they had no information or were not authorised to comment.
Human rights groups have criticised Mr Morrison’s visit.
“The Abbott government’s shameful, rights abusing behaviour regarding refugees and asylum seekers apparently has no limits, and the arrival of Scott Morrison in Phnom Penh indicates the thoroughly bad idea of transferring Australia’s responsibilities to Cambodia is alive and kicking,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
Mr Robertson said it is time for the UN refugee agency UNHCR to stand up and say the proposal is unacceptable and for Cambodia to drop it altogether.
The visit comes after the government announced on Thursday that all asylum seekers detained on Manus Island who were found to be refugees would be resettled in Papua New Guinea.
If a deal were to be struck with Cambodia, it would result in asylum seekers being sent to a country that has no social welfare and where 20 per cent of the population live in poverty and 40 per cent of children under the age of five are malnourished, according to the World Bank.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young accused the Abbott government of crawling around the region ‘‘looking for the next poor country to dump’’ refugees.
‘‘No one in their right mind believes that Minister Morrison is doing anything beyond wiping Australia’s hands of our international responsibilities,’’ she told ABC Radio on Friday.
Mr Morrison’s visit coincides with Cambodia this week establishing an immigration department within its Ministry of Interior “to “facilitate the movement of non-immigrant and immigrant foreign nationals, and immigrant foreign nationals who are private investors in Cambodia”.
According to the United Nations, Cambodia has only about 70 recognised refugees and about 10 asylum seekers living in the country.
One of the poorest countries in the region, Cambodia is often criticised for its poor human rights and judicial record.
In January, security forces shot dead at least four people during mass garment strikes.
Twenty-one people arrested during those protests remain in pre-trial detention in a maximum security prison on charges rights groups say are trumped up.
In 2009, Cambodia agreed with a request from China to deport 20 Uighurs seeking refuge in Cambodia after they had been caught up in clashes with Chinese authorities earlier that year.
Seventeen of those remain in prison in China and some of them have been given life sentences.