Welcome To The Asylum

There’s been much controversy of late regarding the resettling in Cambodia of asylum seekers who were trying to reach Australia, but were intercepted before they managed to get there and are now residing on Nauru, a tiny Pacific island state, and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. The brouhaha over the plan has been vocal and vociferous. Many international institutions deride Australia for not meeting its commitments towards refugees; in some ways it has to be recognized as a cop out.

On the other hand I can sympathize with the country since not being really tough in discouraging the migration might result in a torrent of people seeking an escape route to Aussie from their hardscrabble lives. After all, there are at least a billion desperate people in the world that would go to great lengths to do that. (As this is being written about 150,000 Cambodians illegally working in Thailand have been driven out of that country. People desperate to improve their lives are found in a lot of places. But note, Lao and Burmese working illegally in Thailand are not facing the same pressure to leave, so this is just an excuse to dump on Cambodians. But Thailand needs those workers so this is also a blow to a lot of Thai businesses.)

On the local front, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a network of several local NGOs, has called for a halt to the plan saying it wouldn’t be fair to asylum seekers since local security forces are “known to commit abuses such as killings, torture and arbitrary detention”. That sounds more like the USA than Cambodia.

Yes, there have been several people killed in the recent past who were involved either in political or land-grab demonstrating or workers’ strikes and several more environmental or labor activists have been killed in the past decade, but innocent people are killed every week in America by hyped up, militarized, trigger happy cops, with minorities especially targeted. Torture? Remember America’s rendition program where suspected terrorists were and maybe still are abducted everywhere the CIA operates and sent to third countries, like Syria for instance, to be tortured? Or how about the man associated with the 9/11 bombers who was water-boarded 180 times after the CIA had gotten all the information they were going to get from him? After 179 times were they actually looking for information on the 180th try or were they just having fun? BTW, water-boarding was one of the favored techniques of the Spanish Inquisition and has been used ever since by people and governments who desire to inflict fear and pain. But in Cambodia? That’s news to me.

Admittedly the cops here can be brutal when told to prevent demonstrating, but that’s true probably everywhere but Scandinavia and a few other pockets of exceptional humanity in a violent crazy world. About 10 years ago in Genoa, Italy at the time of an international finance meeting, the police walked into a warehouse late at night where demonstrators were asleep or peacefully talking and busted heads with 100 people injured and needing medical treatment. On that basis Italy would not be fit as a place for asylum seekers, but in fact gets tens of thousands of migrants seeking refuge yearly.

You certainly would never accuse America’s cops of being gentle and law abiding. Police are supposed to apprehend suspected law breakers and turn them over to the courts for justice, but are all too happy to administer nightstick justice on the spot. Not everybody who’s apprehended is guilty so it’s totally wrong for the police to abuse people before they’ve had their day in court. Arbitrary detention? Nothing beats Guantanamo for keeping people for long periods without charges. About fifty of the current inmates were cleared for release years ago, innocent of all suspicions, but still languish behind bars.

Having spent some time in the slammer myself, I strongly believe that it’s better to let a guilty person free than imprison an innocent one. While the government here has put people in prison on politically motivated charges, international pressure assures that they don’t remain very long even if their original sentences were for extended periods. In contrast Thailand just sentenced an anticoup activist to 15 years in prison.

By the above I don’t mean to gloss over the very serious problems and unfortunate backsliding occurring of late in Cambo. It feels sad and depressing to see my adopted home treat so many of its people so harshly, but they still keep fighting back and while the recent killings have certainly dampened many people’s enthusiasm for protesting, the desire and spirit for change and improvement has not diminished. There are demonstrations and strikes happening nearly every day in spite of prohibitions against the activity. But keep it in perspective. When the military overthrew President Morsi in Egypt, more than 1000 protesters were killed and 15,000 imprisoned. Closer to home when the Thai military broke up the red-shirt protest in Bangkok in 2010, 90 people were killed and 1000 injured.

Now I can understand people seeking asylum in Australia most of those coming lately (as of 2012) are from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka not wanting to be shunted over to Cambodia instead. Getting resettled in Oz would be like striking it rich, whereas Cambo?: Welcome to the Asylum. I mean, if a guy is truly fleeing persecution, rather than an economic migrant seeking a better life in Oz, then I reckon Cambodia is as good a place as any to seek refuge. When you come down to it, a lot of us expats here are refugees from the real world of freeways and alienation and over-regulation and McDonald’s 15% meat hamburgers. Many of us think it’s paradise or pretty close so I don’t see why it should be a problem for legitimate asylum seekers.

I expect many of those true asylum seekers, if they understood they could only show up at the airport in Cambodia with a valid passport and stay as long as they liked, would choose that option over paying thousands of dollars to people smugglers and taking grave chances with their lives on rickety overloaded boats. Besides, with Cambodia already welcoming an international community of expats, it seems they’d fit right in, as easy as adjusting to Australia anyway. And with most of the country’s economy being informal they ought to be able to find a way earn money and supplement their Aussie subsidy. Many might not have passports or not be able to leave their country the legitimate route through border control, so they would still be left with the smuggler option.

Still if they came here by way of being captured offshore by Australia and that country is willing to give Cambo a reported (but not confirmed) $40 million to take a mere 100 refugees, they’d certainly be well taken care of. They wouldn’t have the same cushy life as in Oz, but it’d be quite comfortable nonetheless… it might not be western standards, but still very doable. Cambo is certainly more acceptable and logical a place to resettle refugees than Nauru or Papua New Guinea, the two nations now holding asylum seekers.

Nauru as an independent state has the world’s smallest population outside the Vatican; less than 10,000 people. It once had a thriving phosphate mining industry but that has been totally depleted and 80% of the country’s environment has been degraded. It has received tens of millions of dollars from Australia since refugees were first shunted there in 2001 and there are currently about 1100 people at the country’s detention center. It’s very far from everything and too small to absorb asylum seekers. They also had a big riot which caused a lot of damage last year.

PNG is certainly big enough but it’s got one of the lowest rates of urbanization in the world and most people live in tribal societies – Wikipedia calls them customary living arrangements, evidently the new euphemism for tribal. It’s so underdeveloped the only way to get between its two largest cities is by air. It’s not a place that could easily absorb international migrants.

So once again, Welcome to the Asylum.