The Cambodia agreement

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The Cambodia agreement in brief

On 26 September 2014, Australia and Cambodia signed an agreement providing for the relocation of refugees from Nauru to Cambodia. The agreement is set out in two instruments: 

  • Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Government of Australia relating to the Settlement of Refugees (MOU), and
  • Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding on Settlement of Refugees in Cambodia (Operational Guidelines).

The agreement was negotiated in secrecy without consultation with parliament or civil society in Australia or Cambodia, and its terms were not made public until after the signing. The agreement has received widespread criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as well as from politicians, lawyers, refugees, human rights advocates and members of the public in both countries (see below).

After being a refugee-producing country for so many years, it is commendable that Cambodia has expressed a desire ‘to show the world it is ready to take… refugees in a humanitarian manner’ and contribute to finding durable solutions for some of the world’s refugees. However, by its nature and terms, the Cambodia agreement is unlikely to achieve this outcome. As stated by the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, the Cambodia agreement ‘is a worrying departure from international norms’. It constitutes an attempt by Australia to shift its moral and legal responsibilities to refugees who sought protection in its territory onto one of the least developed countries in the region, which currently is not in a position to meet the needs of refugees – either those transferred by Australia or those who arrive by other means. As such, the agreement sets a dangerous precedent that undermines the integrity of the international system for sharing responsibility for refugees.

Other issues of significant concern with the agreement include that:

  • many of its practical details remain unclear, including how much it will cost, how many refugees will be relocated and where they will be accommodated in Cambodia;
  • while it is alleged that refugees will only be relocated on a voluntary basis, significant pressure has been, and may continue to be, placed on refugees to make them agree to relocation; 
  • many of the rights and services that the agreement claims to guarantee to refugees are unlikely to be made available to them in practice; 
  • it is unclear how the agreement will interact with existing Cambodian law where there is a conflict between the two, for example where the agreement guarantees certain rights to refugees which they do not currently enjoy by law (or in practice); and
  • as a result, the agreement carries a significant risk of violating Australia’s obligations under international refugee and human rights law.