Refugee family suffers Cambodian curse

Tony Abbot's Cambodia


The Government is putting its power for good to diabolical use: its proposed policy to send Australian-bound ‘boat people’ to Cambodia drives a spiteful wedge between those in need and those in power.

It had been a long and exhausting journey for the family gathered in the Cambodian office of Jesuit Refugee Service, but their search for a safe environment amidst people who would treat them kindly was not yet over.

Minority Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan, the father had been jailed and tortured for having the Koran in his car, and the family — including three young women — had fled together, stumbling blindly along as so many refugees do in the vain hope of putting distance between themselves and danger. Finally, they found themselves in Cambodia, one of only two countries in South East Asia that is a signatory to the Refugee Convention.

But there was one more hoop through which the family would have to jump before their protection could be guaranteed with the granting of refugee status: the eldest girl would have to marry the refugee officer working on their case. For despite Cambodia’s official status vis-à-vis refugee rights, in reality it is a country still mired in the corruption and inefficiencies that distinguish developing, post-conflict societies; in truth, it offers few practical safeguards to those who seek its protection.

Nonetheless, it’s into this same country that the Australian Government will knowingly, resolutely — proudly, even — send those refugees who have tried to reach its own safe and abundant shores by boat.

It’s a decision thoroughly discredited by Australian Mercy Sister Denise Coghlan, who has lived in Cambodia for two decades and who, as the Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia, knows better than anyone the extent to which refugees’ struggles are perpetuated there. ‘Refugee families in Cambodia often live in very hot one-roomed rented places. Employment opportunities are very limited, and employers are reluctant to accept refugee certificates as legal documents that permit the person to be employed,’ she says.

‘Coming to Siem Reap [where Coghlan lives] you see many tourist hotels, you see the beautiful cultural heritage, but there’s also another reality in Cambodia and that is the aftermath of the genocide, the aftermath of robbing people of development aid, the aftermath of being party to a proxy war, to the present reality where the disparity between the rich and the poor is getting bigger and bigger.’

It’s a place where refugees’ rights are swiftly buried beneath the crushing weight of Cambodia’s own, more pressing social problems. Hidden from view are people like the Ahmadi family, who exemplify the damage — both physical and psychological — that all refugees carry with them; their story is a reminder that those with the greatest of needs ought to be given the most superior of treatment.

Instead, the Government is putting its power for good to diabolical use: its proposed policy to send Australian-bound ‘boat people’ to Cambodia drives a spiteful wedge between those in need and those in power. It points to a blinding ignorance within government about how a nation still suffering the consequences of one the most brutal periods in world history might be better equipped than Australia to care for an influx of damaged people.

Most devious of all, it leaves under-resourced NGOs in Cambodia — which can be relied on for their compassion, empathy and strong sense of rectitude — to pick up the pieces of a despicable, vote-seeking policy.

For the Ahmadi family, the debate is rhetorical, for they had no claim to asylum in Australia. But their story is universal among refugees, for it encompasses the terrors and tyranny of persecution, the uncertainty wrought by forced migration, and the inevitability that there will always be people along the way willing to either support or impede you.

This family’s refugee experience had the closure that relatively few manage to achieve: they were resettled in Canada and granted refugee status in 2013. Coghlan reports that a recent letter from them says they are all either employed or continuing with their schooling. How different their tale may have been had they been forced to make new lives in Cambodia instead.

The outcome is not likely to be as heartening for those asylum seekers awaiting determination of their visa applications on Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island. The terms of the Australian Government’s new refugee policy have not been elucidated, but we can assume that some of those granted refugee status will be settled in PNG (another under-resourced country ill-equipped to provide the healing environment critical to refugees’ wellbeing) and others will be relocated to Cambodia where they’ll be left to fend for themselves.

Amidst all this shirking of its own responsibility the Government will miss a salient point: genuine refugees — those who are routinely identified by this country’s excellent checks and balances — don’t set their compass for Australia because it has a ‘first-class economy’; they come here because they expect to find the democratic, resourceful and accountable country of which they have heard, a place of justice and safety in which their suffering won’t be prolonged.

With the imminent roll-out of the reprehensible Cambodia solution, it’s an impression of which they, and others, will be swiftly disabused.

This article by Catherine Marshall first appeared in Eureka Street.

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