A senior Cambodian official has said his country has tentatively agreed to accept asylum-seekers who had been seeking to settle in Australia in a potential deal criticized by refugee advocates.
Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry Secretary of State Ouch Borith told reporters on Tuesday there was an agreement in principle to take the asylum-seekers, who are being held in camps on the Pacific island nation of Nauru under an agreement with Australia. However, he stressed that Cambodia had not yet approved the deal.
Australian officials had already announced that they were negotiating with Cambodia on the matter.
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's office said in a statement on Wednesday his government was continuing discussions with Phnom Penh and "welcomes the receptive and positive response from Cambodia that has been provided to date."
But Australian human rights lawyer David Manne described the potential deal as "profoundly disturbing."
"Cambodia is not suitable to resettle refugees, it's one of the world's poorest nations and has one of the worst human rights records in our region," Manne told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio on Wednesday.
Manne successfully went to Australia's High Court in 2011 to scuttle a previous Australian government's plan to send hundreds of asylum seekers to Malaysia. He declined to speculate on Wednesday on the prospects of a legal challenge to such a deal with Cambodia.
The boatpeople are mostly from the Middle East, South Asian countries and Myanmar, and the camps on Nauru are considered processing camps rather than settlements.
Australia essentially pays Nauru for hosting the asylum-seekers, and it is generally assumed a similar arrangement would be worked out with Cambodia, although for permanent resettlement.
Ouch Barith told reporters that Cambodia would act out of humanitarian concerns and that a deal did not hinge on how much money it might be paid. He added that Cambodia had established a committee to study the resettlement idea, which came at the initiative of Australia and whose details have not been made public.
U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri, who is visiting Cambodia, said the United Nations would provide support.
"What we think is important is to note that Cambodia is well aware of its international commitment to human rights standards," Pansieri told reporters. "To the extent there is any need for cooperation, we stand ready to provide support to ensure that standards are met."
During a visit to Cambodia in February, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to take in migrants detained while trying to reach the Australian coast. Australia's government came to power last year partly because of a tough stand on asylum seekers arriving from Indonesia with Prime Minister Tony Abbott promising to "stop the boats".
There are more than 1,100 asylum seekers in Nauru. Human rights groups claim conditions at the Nauru camp are poor.
Australia also has an arrangement under which Papua New Guinea hosts a resettlement camp, and it also has come under criticism for allegedly poor conditions and human rights abuses.