When refugees are sent to Cambodia over the coming days, as an official document circulated on Nauru last week indicated could happen this week252, they will be trading the open-air detention of the South Pacific isle for new and unfamiliar surroundings.
The primer letter sells Cambodia253 as a place where violent crime and stray dogs are of no concern and cash-in-hand incentives for volunteer refugees will be handed out. But in a city where opulent mansions sprout up alongside scenes of incredible poverty, one of the challenges facing the new arrivals will be to find their own place between these two poles.
Fourteen years after stepping off a Chinese fishing boat in the port city of Sihanoukville, 55-year-old Somali refugee Abdulkadir Dahir Muse is still trying to find his.
“I speak Khmer, but it’s difficult,” he says of his attempts to familiarise himself with Cambodia and life in Phnom Penh. “I don’t want to stay here.”
Muse, who carries with him his UNHCR refugee status card at all times, describes being unable to get a job and going hungry on a regular basis.
He would like to resettle somewhere else, but his attempts to do so have yet to bear fruit. Of the $80 he says he is given every month by the Phnom Penh arm of the UNHCR, $40 goes on renting a small room in the Kilometre 5 part of the city. He says he also gets a small commission when he gets people to visit a cafe near the gleaming al-Serkal mosque in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighbourhood.
“I’ve experienced discrimination,” he adds, gesturing to describe times when men have relieved themselves on his doorstep.
His is not an uncommon scenario, says Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Cambodian capital. She estimates that about 90% of the refugees who end up in Cambodia “have either expressed that [they want to leave], have been resettled, or have run away”.
Many cite the desire for a proper education for themselves and their children, she says.
“For some, there’s some evidence of racial discrimination and they don’t have documentation to work properly here and they see the opportunities for jobs as very limited, that there are very many Cambodians looking for jobs and there aren’t that many jobs for other people.”
In Muse’s case, the refugee card is mostly “useless”, Coghlan says, as it doesn’t allow him to open a bank account or even buy a motorbike.
The Nauru258 letter says refugees would get a similar card and that it would enable them to set up bank accounts and register businesses, as well as being given travel documents.
Coghlan says refugees’ prospects in Cambodia have much to do with whether or not they have “some capital behind them, some entrepreneurial skills and the motivation to stay here”, but that the desire to leave often outweighs this.
The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, first floated the idea of Cambodia taking in a small number of refugees259 who sought Australia’s protection just six weeks after Cambodian military police opened fire on a crowd of striking garment workers and unionists, killing five.
It was sealed in September, when the then immigration minister, Scott Morrison, signed a memorandum of understanding260 and clinked glasses of champagne with Cambodia’s interior minister, Sar Kheng, in Phnom Penh.
The operational guidelines for the deal, which is worth $40m in aid to Cambodia from Australia, says the latter would bear the costs of the settlement arrangements. In February it was announced that the International Organisation for Migration would be providing logistical support.
Sources say the IOM and officials from the Australian embassy have been making inquiries about secure, villa-style properties in Phnom Penh over the past two weeks. IOM’s regional spokesman, Joe Lowry, referred questions to the embassy, which referred them on to the office of the immigration minister, Peter Dutton. Dutton’s office has not responded to questions.
Khem Sarin, who heads the Ministry of Interior’s refugee department, says because none of his officials were on Nauru, his department would require a list of genuine volunteers.
Although the pendulum of opinion does swing in Phnom Penh, feelings are strong among some that the deal is sour and should never have been signed.
“The government has never helped me,” says 47-year-old Hin Chan, taking a break from picking up plastic rubbish on a dust-choked road in the Stung Meanchey neighbourhood. “The deal is not good. [The refugees] should go back to their own country.”
In Boeng Kak, where 3,000 families were evicted between 2009 and 2010 to make way for a multimillion-dollar development project, housewife Ngoun Kimlang says life would be no better in Cambodia for the refugees, and laments that the money exchanging hands between countries will not benefit regular Cambodians.
At a cafe popular with wealthier Cambodians, feelings are mixed. Ly You Chhoun, a 24-year-old who works in a travel firm, says Vietnamese and Chinese nationals already outnumber Cambodians, and the refugees “should be sent to a developed country, because Cambodia is still developing”.
He imagines life will be difficult for them, citing attacks on Vietnamese nationals as one area of concern.
A few tables over, businessman Ung Pao Ly sits with three smartphones. He says he has no problems with the deal but sees significant opposition to it and negative commentary on Facebook.
Both menagree that the public education and health systems – which the refugees will have to rely on – are best avoided. The teachers don’t care enough, they say, and people have to wait too long to be examined in public hospitals.
Ahmad Yahya, president of the Cambodian Muslim Community Development Organisation, is more hopeful. He tells Guardian Australia he shares a kinship with refugees, having been one himself in the US, “so I know how difficult life can be in refugee camps”.
He says he intends to establish a fund to assist them in their transition to Cambodian life.
“If the government opens the door to us [to help the refugees], they could open a restaurant or shop … if they have that idea, we should help them to start – then I would feel confident that they would have a good life here,” he says.
In 2009 Cambodia deported 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China at gunpoint and in late February 36 Montagnard asylum seekers were sent back to Vietnam.