It’s a hot, fumy night in central Phnom Penh, and Mohammed Rashid is serving up a roadside roti. He cracks an egg onto a carefully kneaded flatbread. When it sizzles, he adds a healthy serving of chilli sauce before rolling everything tightly.
While the food stand – ‘Rashid’s Roti on Wheels’ – is basic, it cost vast sums of money to get Rashid here. The 28-year-old Rohingya refugee is the unlikely face of an expensive experiment carried out by the Australian government, which shipped him here from one of its notorious ‘offshore’ detention centres on Nauru, a tiny South Pacific island. The controversial deal – which included a $30-million aid package to Cambodia – only convinced a total of seven refugees to move.
Australia has been sending people to Nauru since 2001. Hundreds of men, women and children are held there indefinitely, even after they’re identified as ‘genuine refugees’. Strongly condemned by human rights groups, offshore detention is an integral part of a punitive refugee policy, which bars anyone who arrives in boats seeking asylum from ever settling in Australia.
Australia offered an additional $11 million in resettlement costs via the International Office for Migration for Cambodia-bound refugees. Yet, according to the Phnom Penh Post, only three of the refugees remain in Cambodia: two Syrians and Rashid.
Rashid’s journey to Nauru was a long one. He arrived in Malaysia 10 years ago, after escaping Myanmar where Rohingya Muslims are heavily oppressed, subjected to brutal attacks by the military and denied basic rights; the United Nations has described the Rohingya as ‘the world’s most persecuted minority’.
Five years later, Rashid paid a smuggler to take him by boat to Australia. Instead, he washed up at Christmas Island – another offshore detention centre – and was later transferred to Nauru, where he stayed for two years.
Rashid says he was supported by the Australian government until recently – they helped him set up the roti stand. But he’s not happy in Cambodia. Two months after setting up, business hasn’t picked up like he’d hoped. After a slow night on the stall, he sent me a message to say: ‘I don’t have any good situation.’
When Rashid first arrived in Cambodia, he warned other Nauru detainees not to come. A lack of quality healthcare was just one reason he cited.
The people still holed up on Nauru include survivors of torture, war and sexual abuse. This year, some have left for resettlement to the US, but Australian authorities admit there are not enough places for everyone.