Australia said Cambodia had agreed to allow an unlimited number of asylum seekers to settle permanently in one of Southeast Asia's poorest nations, as new details emerged of a deal to be signed Friday.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the agreement with Phnom Penh would pave the way for asylum seekers detained by Australia at an immigration center in the island nation of Nauru to settle in Cambodia if they so choose.
It is the first time Canberra has confirmed an agreement that the United Nations and human-rights groups have already strongly criticized. The Cambodian government said Wednesday that a deal with Australia would be signed Friday during a visit by Mr. Morrison to Phnom Penh after months of negotiations.
"The arrangement is strictly voluntary. Anyone who chooses to go to Cambodia will have chosen themselves," Mr. Morrison told reporters Thursday in Canberra. "Settlement will be permanent for those who take up these arrangements-- there is no cap."
The country's conservative government has been eager to relocate asylum seekers from the costly Australian-funded center in Nauru because a deal to process refugees there doesn't allow for permanent settlement--unlike a separate agreement reached with Papua New Guinea, where a second center is located.
Human-rights organizations in Australia and Cambodia have raised concerns about the plan to move at least 1,000 asylum seekers to a poverty-racked country with a spotty human-rights record. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said it won't endorse the agreement between the countries.
Rights groups have claimed that detainees face inhumane conditions at the centers. An independent report in May said " frustration and anxiety" at the Australian government's tougher stance toward refugees triggered riots at the Papua New Guinea facility in February that left one man dead and scores of others wounded. Canberra has repeatedly argued its immigration regime doesn't breach international rights conventions.
"Australia cannot possibly expect a country which faces such serious challenges in meeting the basic needs of its own population to provide the specialized support refugees need to recover from trauma and settle successfully," said Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia.
Amnesty International and a coalition of eight international aid groups--including World Vision and Save the Children- -said in a joint statement that the deal was "inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal," contravening what they said were Australia's humanitarian and refugee obligations to vulnerable children and families.
Mr. Morrison, whose conservative government is expected to contribute millions of dollars to the Cambodian government to pay for the deal, said refugees who accept the offer would have the same rights as others under Cambodian law and the international refugee convention. "That's what a regional plan and a regional agreement and a regional solution looks like," he said.
A tough line on border protection was among the key issues that brought Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's center-right government to power last year. Before the conservatives began their border blockade operation under the command of an army general, more than 13,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat over a six-month period, mostly from ports in neighboring Indonesia.
Separately on Thursday, the government moved to resurrect a controversial temporary-stay visa overturned by the previous Labor government that critics say leaves asylum seekers in permanent limbo--with no eventual path to settlement and citizenship. A deal with minor-party senators has allowed the government to reintroduce "safe-haven" visas, which allow refugees to work in areas outside the major cities--in places with labor shortages--for a maximum of five years. Dow Jones News