Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Monday that Cambodia would remain an option for refugees being held on the island of Nauru, despite a resettlement arrangement announced on Sunday with the U.S., according to Australian media.
Cambodia agreed in 2014 to resettle some of the refugees in return for a four-year, $30.2 million aid package. But only six of the hundreds of refugees on the island have taken the offer, and only two remain after four opted to return to their home countries.
Refusing to settle the refugees in Australia and searching for other options, Mr. Turnbull announced a new arrangement with the U.S. on Sunday, but made no mention of where that left the country’s multi-million-dollar deal with Cambodia.
In an interview with Australia’s Nine Network on Monday, the prime minister said that any of the refugees on Nauru who were not offered the chance to move to the U.S. could still choose Cambodia.
“They can return home to their country of origin, which is where people who have been denied refugee status should go, and they have,” he told the network, according to The Australian newspaper.
“Many can be resettled in Cambodia. One thing I want to be clear about is they will not come to Australia.”
Mr. Turnbull and his immigration minister, Peter Dutton, have said that the refugees on Nauru could also apply for a 20-year visa to stay on the island. They have offered few details about the new arrangement with the U.S.
Cambodia’s immigration officials were caught off-guard by the news of the U.S. resettlement offer.
On Sunday, immigration department director Sok Phal said he had not heard about it, but speculated that it might put an end to Cambodia’s deal with Australia, while claiming to know nothing about the $30.2 million aid package that came with it.
On Monday, however, the immigration department’s administration chief, Kerm Sarin, who also had not heard of the U.S. arrangement, said it would not affect Cambodia’s deal with Australia.
“It does not relate to us,” he said. “Our deal with Australia was for voluntary refugees. So if they volunteer to resettle in Cambodia, they can come. But if they don’t, they will not come. It’s up to them. So Australia-Cambodia and Australia-America do not relate to each other.”
Asked about the future of Australia’s deal with Cambodia and the fate of the promised $30.2 million—about $3.9 million had arrived as of December—Australia’s Immigration Department declined to comment.
The Refugee Action Coalition, an Australian advocacy group, said the U.S. would clearly prove a more attractive choice for those given the option.
But it remains unclear whether that option will survive the administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who campaigned on a platform hostile to would-be Muslim immigrants. Most of the refugees on Nauru have come from Muslim-majority countries.
Mr. Turnbull reportedly told Nine Network that his administration had not discussed the arrangement with Mr. Trump’s team.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the U.S. Center for Immigration Studies, speculated that Australia’s plans for the U.S. would not last long. Once news of it spread, he said, the plan would be “dead on arrival.”