Australia is set to sign a deal Friday that would see refugees trying to reach its shores resettled in Cambodia, where rights groups warn they are likely to be mistreated.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday the policy will be “strictly voluntary,” vowing only refugees who are willing to do so will be resettled in Cambodia.
Morrison said the agreement, which he will sign Friday in Phnom Penh, will provide refugees with unspecified support to make them “self-reliant as quickly as possible.”
He gave few other details on the deal, which some Australian opposition lawmakers and international human rights groups have criticized as inhumane.
Human Rights Watch said Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries, has not shown a willingness or ability to provide refugees adequate protection.
The New York-based group also claims the Southeast Asian nation has a record of returning refugees to countries where they face persecution, such as China and Vietnam.
Hundreds of asylum seekers have died in recent years while en route to Australia on rickety, overcrowded boats, creating a humanitarian emergency.
Under a policy aimed at deterring the boats, Australia’s conservative government has been sending those trying to reach the country to remote camps on either Manus Island or the tiny Pacific island of Nauru.
The government says the policy has been successful at deterring people smugglers, pointing out that only one boatload of refugees has reached the Australian mainland since December.
But the United Nations and immigration rights activists have called the camps harsh and say long-term detention at such facilities is inhumane.
In a move aimed at addressing those criticisms, the Australian government on Thursday introduced a bill in parliament that would provide temporary, three-year visas for refugees.