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Remaining two refugees in Cambodia rue leaving Nauru

Sydney Morning Herald - March 13, 2016

Lindsay Murdoch, Phnom Penh A refugee who agreed to resettle from Nauru to Cambodia under a controversial $55 million Australian scheme says he feels abandoned and fears he will die in the impoverished country.

"I feel unwell, lonely and sad," Mohammed Rashid, a 26-year-old Rohingya Muslim, told Fairfax Media while lying on the floor of a decrepit house in a Phnom Penh suburb. "I fear that I will die here."

Australia sent Mr Rashid to Cambodia, a country with one of the world's poorest medical services, despite his having a long history of illness, including being flown from Nauru to Brisbane for weeks-long hospital treatment in 2014.

In an exclusive interview Mr Rashid said that only three months after arriving in Cambodia his relationship with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the agency Australia paid $15 million to take care of refugees arriving in Cambodia from Nauru, is strained.

Only two of five refugees who accepted offers of money and training to go to Cambodia remain in the country, as the agreement sealed with champagne toasts in late 2014 has collapsed in a political headache for Australia.

Mr Rashid said key promises made by Australian officials to convince him to give up hope of reaching mainland Australia remain unfulfilled, including offers of help setting up a restaurant, housing accommodation and an $US8000 ($10,000) cash payment.

He sleeps alone in the upstairs of an IOM office despite Australia paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent a luxury villa in a Phnom Penh suburb for three years.

Mr Rashid said he has so far received $US4000 of the promised payment but that almost US$2000 of that was stolen from him by a crooked motorcycle dealer. He said he feels discriminated against as a Rohingya Muslim in the Buddhist-majority nation. "When I was robbed I went to a government department to complain but they told me they couldn't help me," he said.

Mr Rashid said he has been issued with a refugee identification card by Cambodian authorities but that it does not carry enough weight to allow him to buy a telephone sim card. In a blow to efforts by Australia to convince more refugees to resettle in Cambodia, Mr Rashid said he tells friends on Nauru who call him that they should not believe what Australian officials say and they should not agree to make the journey to Cambodia.

Australian officials in Nauru have conducted intense campaigns portraying Cambodia as a developing nation utopia with no violent crime, few dogs, mosques, jobs, football and martial arts, sparking fierce criticism from Cambodia's opposition MPs and human rights and refugee advocates.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton declined to comment but earlier this week defended the Cambodia deal, saying it was part of the government's success in stopping the boats.

"The fact that we've had no drownings at sea, no successful boat arrivals, I think is a pretty significant outcome," he told Sydney radio. He said under the $55 million deal, $40 million was aid money and $15 million related to resettlement costs of which only $2 million had been spent.

Mr Rashid, who left Indonesia in a people smuggler's boat, said he suffered severe lung and kidney problems and asthma after he arrived in Nauru from Christmas Island in 2013. He said his health has been deteriorating over the past two years and that last week he fell ill and tried to reach five IOM officials by telephone, but none immediately answered. "I was crying. I felt I was left on my own," he said.

Mohammed Yusuf, a Rohingya friend who has lived in Cambodia for eight years, said he took Mr Rashid to a hospital where a doctor recommended keeping him in a ward for a week to 10 days.

"The doctor came and told me an IOM man told that staying in hospital three days was enough and that Rashid had to return to the IOM office," Mr Yusuf said. Mr Yusuf was caring for Mr Rashid at home when Fairfax Media interviewed.

The IOM paid the $US460 hospital bill. Joe Lowry, an IOM spokesman, said the organisation cannot reply to specific questions about Mr Rashid, citing confidentiality. He said qualified IOM professionals are in daily contact with the refugees, including on an emergency basis.

Mr Rashid said that in Nauru asylum seekers and refugees can receive quick medical treatment. "If I am going to die I should have stayed in Nauru and died there," he said.

Daniel Eskandari, an Iranian in his early 20s, has also remained unemployed since he arrived in Phnom Penh from Nauru in June last year in the first group of four refugees, refugee sources say.

He has also complained about broken Australian promises, along with three other refugees who have returned home to Iran and Myanmar. Officials on Nauru convinced Mr Eskandari to take a one-way ticket to Cambodia with an offer to fast-track his application for refugee status, which rates him as having a fear of persecution in Iran.

"Daniel and four other refugees from Nauru saw Cambodia as a stepping stone to somewhere else," Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition, said.

"They all made it very clear that when they were going to Cambodia it wasn't with any intention of remaining there, it was to get away from Nauru, and to have a greater prospect of actually getting somewhere where they could get secure resettlement."

Within hours of the approval of his application Mr Eskandari was being chaperoned in a military-style operation to one of Asia's most poorest nations.

But life in Cambodia quickly turned out to be a bitter disappointment for Mr Eskandari and the other refugees who volunteered to give the country a go, refugee advocates say. Mr Rintoul said in their first months in Cambodia the refugees were kept pretty much housebound in the rented villa.

"They were isolated, weren't given the lump-sum payment they were promised and were encouraged not to interact with community groups," he says. "They complained about their situation."

The Australian government threw huge diplomatic resources into getting the first group to Cambodia, including posting an additional 10 people to the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh. But the agreement was widely condemned, including by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which said refugees fleeing persecution and armed conflict deserve better than being shipped from one country to the next.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said Cambodia's strongman Hun Sen, whose corrupt regime received an additional $50 million in aid for signing the agreement, is "laughing all the way to the bank" while the Australian government has been forced to go further afield, to places like Kazakhstan, to try to make similar deals to clear asylum seekers and refugees from Nauru and PNG's Manus Island.

"It was a classic Phnom Penh sting job on a donor, get the money upfront but don't concede the operational control over the project and then stall or obfuscate until you get the outcome you want, which in this case was only a handful of refugees," Mr Robertson said.

Kerm Sarin, director of the Cambodian government's refugee department, said last week there are no more refugees on Nauru seeking to resettle in Cambodia. "We are doing a humanitarian program, so whether it's successful or unsuccessful, it doesn't matter, as long as we have implemented the MoU [agreement with Australia]," he told the Phnom Penh Post.

Wiping his forehead with wet tissue, Mr Rashid said he doesn't know what his future holds because he has been told he cannot go back to Nauru.

"All sorts of things are going around in my head like I am a crazy person... I don't feel safe," he said. "It was a big mistake to come here."

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/remaining-two-refugees-in-cambodia-rue-leaving-nauru-20160312-gnh7mo.html .

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