Two more refugees resettled in Cambodia from an Australian detention camp have returned home, the government said Tuesday, sparking renewed criticism about the Aus$55 million (US$40 million) scheme.
Under Canberra’s hardline policy to stop asylum-seeker boats reaching its shores, those arriving by sea are denied resettlement in Australia even if found to be genuine refugees.
Instead they are turned back to their country of departure or sent to the tiny Pacific state of Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
The government also struck a deal with Phnom Penh in September 2014 to take in refugees in exchange for millions of dollars in aid, in a move condemned by rights groups and questioned by the UN.
Initially only four people held on Nauru — three Iranians and one ethnic Rohingya man from Myanmar — volunteered to move to the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, which has a weak record of upholding human rights. A fifth, another Rohingya, joined them later.
One of the Rohingya decided to return home last October, citing homesickness. Now two of the three Iranians have also left.
“Refugees can elect to return to their country of origin at any time, which is what an Iranian couple in Cambodia decided to do recently,” said a spokesman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.
A Cambodian immigration spokesman said the couple were “quite happy living in Cambodia, but they returned to Iran because they were homesick after a long time away”.
Australia’s Labor opposition party, which supports the detention of asylum-seekers at the remote Pacific facilities, said with so few opting for resettlement the Cambodian scheme was a “dud”.
“Not only has the coalition (government) wasted Aus$55 million of taxpayers money on this dud deal, they have also left more than 2,000 people on Manus and Nauru in limbo for nearly three years on their watch,” said shadow immigration spokesman Richard Marles.
“The inability of this government to secure a meaningful resettlement arrangement with a credible third country is a serious failure on the part of (Prime Minister) Malcolm Turnbull.”
Dutton defended the arrangement with Phnom Penh.
“The government remains committed to supporting the government of Cambodia to implement settlement arrangements in Cambodia and encourages refugees temporarily in Nauru to explore this settlement option,” he said.
“The government holds firm on our policy that you if arrive by boat then you can either return to your country of origin or be resettled in a third country.”