Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

September 29, 2014

Well, they’ve gone ahead and done it: Australia and Cambodia have signed a deal to see Cambodia take a number of Australia-bound refugees from Nauru and settle them in the countryside here somewhere.

At a ceremony on Friday, Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signed the deal with Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng, which also includes $40m extra cash for Cambodia. The ceremony was farcical, with waiters upending trays of Champagne and neither Morrison nor Sar Kheng saying a word to anyone, even each other, for the five minutes they stood drinking on stage. Journalists were baffled.

Afterwards, Cambodia said that Australia had asked them to call off a planned press conference; Australia later denied this, saying that media arrangements were down to Cambodia. So much for international cooperation.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop defended the deal, saying that Cambodia asked Australia if it could help resettle asylum seekers, because it has aspirations to be a developed country.

“Cambodia is very keen to get people into their country who can help them grow their economy,” Bishop said.

Ah, yes, that entrepreneurial spirit. Just what Cambodia needs; a thousand or so more dirt-poor people here to rely on the country’s education and health care systems. However Cambodian officials have said they might begin by resettling just five refugees.

Most people here in Cambodia are against the deal; street protests have been held outside the Australian embassy. The UNHCR and Amnesty International have both condemned the deal.

President of Cambodia’s Centre for Human Rights, Ou Virak, said it was both “shameful” and “illegal”.

“The Australian Government has an obligation to protect refugees and sending them Cambodia’s way is not how a responsible country protects refugees,” he said.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy warned that “very little” of the money exchanged under the deal will filter down to the refugees.

“It will be pocketed by corrupt government officials,” he said. “Refugees are not like any ordinary goods that can be exported from one country and imported by another country. They are human beings.”

But a local English-language newspaper had a different point of view: “Mr. and Ms. Refugee, given the realities of human smuggling, you and your family gambled big – and lost … In return for an investment of several thousands dollars, you thought you had a winning lottery ticket by entering Australia by the back door … 
Cambodia’s economy is growing by seven percent – last year, this year, and probably next year… So, pull up your socks (you won’t need them here), and adjust to your new reality.”


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Back again

September 16, 2014

Sorry, everyone, for such a long break between posts; I’ve just got back from the UK, where I was burying my beloved grandmother, and taking care of her estate. Not a holiday at all, and not particularly cheerful, but what can you do?

I got back to Phnom Penh last night after a couple of weeks of full fridges, efficient shops, boring television, well-stocked supermarkets and loads of tedious chatter about the imminent independence of Scotland.

In many ways, my journey back to PP was illustrative of why I live here now, and not in the West. I was dropped at a random bus stop in central Oxford on Sunday morning; the bus was there and waiting for me, more by luck than judgement. The ride to Heathrow was quick and entirely painless. A bit of to-ing and fro-ing at the airport to get to the right terminal, then a couple of gins and then eight hours to Doha. A couple of hours at Doha, thence to Saigon and eventually Phnom Penh.

All in all it took some 21 hours, door-to-door. Twenty-one hours where the only words I spoke to anyone were to specify meal choices or order drinks. Otherwise I read and watched truly execrable movies whilst gliding serenely across quarter of the earth. It was cool and efficient, slightly grotty, slightly irritating and largely impersonal.

Then back in PP, things started to improve. Leaving the terminal, five minutes after deplaning, I was struck by the great wall of Cambodian heat, and my shirt started sticking to my back. Just leaving the airport car park, a dozen random people smiled at me. The roads were potholed and chaotic, the traffic fizzed and shunted alarmingly. The roadside stalls were piled high with oranges and bananas, apples and dragon fruit. Whole families squeezed onto mopeds weaved in and out of the traffic as my tuk-tuk driver and I discussed what we were going to do during the upcoming Pchum Ben festival, and he practiced his English.

Back at my flat, someone had dug up the road, and I had to climb over a ten-foot mound of earth and mud to get to my gate. I’ve never been happier. Phnom Penh isn’t impersonal; it’s a riot of sounds and smells, exuberant noises and ghastly sights; it’s mud and death and poverty and life and stink and scream and now, and I love it. It’s not smooth or efficient, but it’s undeniably alive.

Dog Harley was initially overjoyed to see me, then thought better of it, and sat under the dining table ostentatiously eating a scrap of rawhide and pretending not to look at me. That didn’t last long, though, before he came around. And now I’m back in the office, planning a trip to the provinces in a couple of days to meet with a number of HIV-infected orphans, which promises to be fairly heavy, but also fairly profound.

It seems a world away from the UK. I love the UK, kind of, but I adore it here.

And finally, for no particular reason, a weird photo of Jimmy Page visiting Angkor Wat. Just because Jimmy Page…


Jimmy Angkor