PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Australia asked Cambodia, one of Asia’s poorest countries, on Saturday to take in asylum seekers detained while trying to reach the Australian coast and Cambodia said it would think about it.
Australia’s government came to power last year partly because of a tough stance on asylum seekers arriving from Indonesia with Prime Minister Tony Abbott promising to “stop the boats”.
Australia already has offshore detention centers in the impoverished South Pacific nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru for asylum seekers it intercepts, often in rickety boats.
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop asked Prime Minister Hun Sen if Cambodia, which in the 1970s and 1980s saw a huge exodus of refugees fleeing war and starvation, could also house some migrants.
“The Australian minister has requested that Cambodia takes in some refugees,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told a news briefing with Bishop.
“In the past, Cambodians have fled their country to other countries but now, it’s time that Cambodia takes in refugees from other countries,” he said.
Hun Sen would “take serious consideration” of the request, Hor Namhong said.
In her comments, Bishop did not refer directly to the Australian request but said she had discussed cooperation with Cambodia in various areas including people smuggling.
The number of asylum seekers reaching Australia pales in comparison with other countries but it is a polarizing political issue that also stokes tension with neighboring Indonesia over border policies that have been criticized by the United Nations and international human rights groups.
One asylum seeker was killed and about 80 were hurt in rioting last week at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said the Manus camp should be shut because it fails to provide “safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention”.