When word spread through this quiet suburban block in Cambodia’s capital that one of four refugees sent to the country under a controversial resettlement deal with Australia had asked to be repatriated, residents were unsurprised.
Hong Sinath, who frequently stays with his family nearby, said he had only seen them leave their guarded villa in a van with people accompanying them. "I think this place is similar to a so-called prison where they lock the people inside," he told IRIN.
Three Iranians and a Rohingya from Myanmar left Australia’s refugee detention centre in the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru to become the only refugees resettled thus far in Cambodia under the agreement. In exchange for accepting, settling and integrating refugees that Australia refuses to take, Cambodia has received AUS $55 million in aid and resettlement packages.
Lending legitimacy to the much-criticised deal, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) agreed to carry out “essential support,” including education, healthcare, social orientation and job assistance.
But just three months into the programme, the Rohingya refugee has already requested to be returned to Myanmar, raising significant questions about what efforts are being made to help the group adjust to life in a new, foreign home.
Complete freedom, except for the curfew
Cambodian Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak confirmed that the Rohingya man had requested that the Myanmar embassy help him return to that country. But he denied that the refugees were being prevented from moving freely and speculated that the man wanted to return “because he was homesick”.
“We don’t prohibit travel. They have the freedom to move,” he told IRIN. “Only one thing: they should be at home before 8 pm. Because they are newcomers, they have to understand very well Cambodian culture.”
Residents said they saw no evidence of their new neighbours leaving the villa to eat at the nearby noodle stand or even take a stroll down the tree-lined street.
Hong Raksmey Phalla’s house abuts the spacious compound. She often watches from her window as outsiders enter and leave the villa constantly, while the refugees stay put.
“They never go out from the gate by themselves,” she said, adding that they only seem to leave “in a white van accompanied by staff.”
Refugee assistance groups in Cambodia also suggest there has been little effort to help the refugees integrate.
Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Service said her agency repeatedly offered assistance, including providing a Rohingya translator, only to be met with silence. Hers is the only local organisation that works closely with the country’s 63 refugees, some of whom are Rohingya.
“We have had no access,” said Coghlan. “We told the Australian embassy that we would like to welcome them and/or take them out for leisure activities. The embassy said it would pass this information on to IOM. Nothing happened.”
See: Australia still has questions to answer on refugees
‘Resettlement efforts made’
A spokesman for Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection told IRIN that his government is aware that one of the refugees has asked to return home, but said efforts were being made to help them resettle.
The refugees are receiving employment counselling from a local NGO, language classes in English and the Cambodian language Khmer, as well as “cultural orientation by IOM”.
Citing “confidentiality principles,” Kristin Dadey, who runs the IOM’s Cambodian Refugee Settlement Program, said she could not comment on any policy to keep the refugees inside, but said the main goal is “to help facilitate their long-term integration into Cambodia.”
“For sure, part of their integration is interaction with the host communities, definitely,” she said. “But then again, their integration into the community is something we’re working on with the refugees themselves and also the government of Cambodia.”
Asked if there was a timetable for when the refugees would be permitted to move freely in the community, Dadey referred questions to the government.
“IOM doesn’t make those decisions,” she said.
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said it is clear the refugees have had their movements curtailed, and he added that the three Iranian refugees had been kept in a separate section of the compound from the Rohingya man.
“The fact that in the end he’s become isolated and desperate enough to try and find another alternative, confirms that there is no viable resettlement arrangement with Cambodia.”
People who answered phonecalls at the Myanmar embassy in Phnom Penh said no one was available to comment on the Rohingya man’s request.
A desperate decision
The fact that he is bidding to return to Myanmar also underscores his apparent desperation.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR estimates that at least 47,000 Rohingya have left Myanmar’s Rakhine state by boat in the past year-and-a-half alone. The predominantly Muslim Rohingya, a mostly stateless ethnic and religious minority, live under virtual apartheid with their movements strictly limited and little access to health care and education.
Many Rohingya have fallen prey to human traffickers who hold them in captivity until their families pay a ransom, while others have drowned when boats run by human smugglers capsized before reaching their destination, usually Malaysia or Indonesia.
See: Did Malaysian cops ignore Rohingya trafficking?
For every 1,000 people that take the route by sea, about a dozen die from starvation, dehydration or disease, or are beaten to death by crew, according to UNHCR. Others have died in jungle prisons run by human traffickers on the frontier between Malaysia and Thailand where authorities have discovered the remains of more than 200 people over the past few months.
The Rohingya refugee in Phnom Penh would have braved the threat of traffickers to head into rough seas on a rickety boat in search of a better life. Having made it finally to the Australian coast, he would have been detained and sent to Nauru before accepting the offer of resettlement in Cambodia.
If the Myanmar authorities agree to repatriate him, his journey will have gone full circle.
(Additional reporting by Koam Chanrasmey)