In his small restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh, Hashim Fahram serves up fresh, golden falafel having found safety for his family far from his native Iraq.
The former blacksmith has been making a living for the past year serving Middle Eastern dishes to residents of Cambodia’s capital after fleeing his hometown Fallujah in 2014 with his family to escape fighting between the army and Daesh (the so-called IS) militants. “It is much safer here for my family and me,” Fahram told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Cambodia has been good for me, it’s easy to start a business here and the people are friendly.”
Cambodia has been in the spotlight as the first group of asylum seekers — three from Iran and a Rohingya — arrived on Thursday to be resettled under a controversial deal struck in September with the Australian government. The impoverished Southeast Asian nation has agreed to receive potentially hundreds of refugees who had tried to reach Australian shores, in exchange for an extra A$40 million ($40 million) in aid from Canberra.
Rights groups have condemned Australia for trying to resettle refugees in poorer nations like Cambodia, a country frequently under scrutiny for human rights abuses and with an economy less than one percent of the size of Australia’s.
Lines are blurred
International humanitarian and immigration policies make a clear distinction between refugees, who move to seek protection, and migrants, who mostly move for family or economic reasons.
But as thousands of migrants are crossing the Mediterranean in Europe and the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia in search of safer or better lives, analysts said migrants like the Fahram family show that in practice this distinction has become far from obvious. “Refugees and migrants are often the same people,” Gerhard Hoffstaedter, a senior research fellow in anthropology at the University of Queensland in Australia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“A key factor that unites all of them is that you leave your country involuntarily because living conditions there threaten your survival, be it violence, persecution or poverty,” he said.
Refugee status is sometimes seen as the least desirable of legal categories as it may expose new arrivals to discrimination due to a heated, politically charged debate over migrants in many parts of the world, analysts said. It also limits migrants’ choices as they may not be able to study or run a business.
Little is known about the backgrounds of the refugees who decided to make Cambodia their new home, apart from that three are from Iran and one is a Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority residing mostly in Myanmar.
The International Organization for Migration said they will be given language training, education and health services and also be assisted with finding jobs to help them settle.
The Fahram family doesn’t qualify for any government assistance because none of them have refugee status.
Fahram reckoned he could qualify as a refugee because he fled violence in his home country but said it was easier to come as a businessman because Cambodia made it straightforward for him to get a visa and open a restaurant.
A state of limbo
Without refugee status in Cambodia, the Fahrams have to rely on the authorities to renew their visas every year, which makes it difficult to plan for the longer term.
Alistair Boulton, assistant regional representative for the UN refugee agency said migrants like the Fahram family lacked a support network and also needed protection.
“Certainly you wouldn’t want to see anything threaten this person’s livelihood, but that person should have the additional peace of mind and reassurance of recognition as a refugee if they have international protection needs,” he said. — Thomson Reuters Foundation