From Nauru to limbo: the anguish of Australia's last asylum seeker in Cambodia

Yaara Bou Melhem and Helen Davidson
From Nauru to limbo: the anguish of Australia's last asylum seeker in Cambodia. Rohingya Mohammad Roshid says he despairs at being stranded with no support from Australia, the nation that set up his transfer

Mohammad Roshid is hardly alone among refugees sent to Nauru and Manus Island by Australia when he says he feels “hopeless and broken” and that he is “stuck in limbo without a future in sight”.

But Roshid’s despair is unique, thanks to his decision in 2015 to take up the offer of a transfer to Cambodia, one of only 10 asylum seekers held offshore to do so. The other nine have since managed to leave the country.

Only Roshid remains, trapped in a poor country with no possibility of becoming a citizen and no support from the country that promoted his move – Australia.

“All I am asking for is a permanent solution so I don’t have to live this stateless life,” the 29-year-old Rohingya says. “If I was given an opportunity to be resettled in a third country, I would be able to work and make a future without struggling on a daily basis. I can’t see this is a possibility if I remain in Cambodia.”

A ‘solution’ with few takers

Before the US deal and the New Zealand offer and the Canadian sponsorships, there was the Cambodian solution. It launched in 2014 when Scott Morrison, then immigration minister, clinked champagne glasses with Cambodia’s interior minister and signed a deal to send Australia’s offshore refugees to the south-east Asian country.

Related: 'I can't believe I'm free': the Canadian citizens ending the torment for Australia’s offshore refugees

The deal was widely criticised over its lack of transparency and the implications of Australia paying to ship its refugees to a country with a track record of human rights abuses and corruption, and which struggles to support its own people.

It ended up costing Australia more than $50m to send 10 people, nine of whom eventually left the country. Cambodia, having received its $40m in aid, said it didn’t want any more.

Roshid, who fled danger in his homeland and sought safety in Australia, only to be dumped on Nauru, now feels abandoned in Cambodia.

For most of his life, he has sought to be a citizen of whatever country would have him. He took a chance on Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in south-east Asia, based on promises he would no longer be stateless.

But now he says he has heard nothing from the organisations that were tasked by the Australian government to support him, and watches from afar as his former fellow detainees finally get their second chance in North America.

“I felt hopeless and broken when I saw that refugees from Manus and Nauru were being resettled in the US and Canada because I couldn’t see a future for me in Cambodia,” Roshid says.

Despite assurances he says he received, neither the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) nor its successor, the Australian firm Connect Settlement Services, helped him get citizenship or a passport in his new home. Without it, he says, he cannot find work, buy a SIM card or rent an apartment.

“I have been trying so hard to get a job but I haven’t had any luck yet,” he says. “I saw an advertisement on Facebook in October this year about a clothing factory. I called them and set up an appointment to see if I could work there. They asked me to bring my passport or citizenship card, which I was unable to do.”

Related: Australia must use past success to reset future asylum policy, professor says

When he arrived in November 2015, Roshid was supported by the IOM for five months, receiving food, pocket money and rent. He says he then got some assistance from the Australian government for another 20 months, but it has been almost two years since he got any help.

The IOM confirms it was contracted to provide services for six months, but says it can not provide further details about individuals for privacy reasons.

The IOM has previously told Al Jazeera its staff thought “long and hard” about getting involved with the Cambodia deal.

“[We] came down to the difficult … decision that this was the best that we could do for these vulnerable migrants,” spokesman Joe Lowry says. “We pushed very hard for the highest possible levels of services to these people to try to be as pro-migrant as we can be, as we need to be to retain our credibility.”

‘On many occasions I was beaten’

The most recent organisation to offer Roshid help, Connect Settlement Services, gave him a small cart so he could start a small business as a street vendor and support himself and his wife, a fellow Rohingya whom Roshid met in Cambodia.

“I have been trying so hard to sell roti but it is so difficult for me to get a spot to sell my roti because all the main spots are taken by the Cambodians,” he tells Guardian Australia.

“I often try to go early to obtain a good spot but I am always kicked out by locals. They say you are not from here. On many occasions I was beaten and my money was taken away from me because I didn’t leave. I reported these events to the Australian immigration but no action was taken. So I realised that justice would not be served for me.

“I have no choice except to leave and find another spot where I can barely sell a few roti.”

Connect Settlement Services was paid $1.32m to care for the handful of refugees in Cambodia, for 14 months until late 2016. It was also paid $77.7m for two years’ work providing services to the detainees on Nauru, but declined to renew its contracts in September 2016, saying the work required was beyond them. The next day it also ended its Cambodian contract.

Graham Thom, a spokesman for Amnesty International Australia, says the organisation was always concerned about the long-term status of refugees who went to Cambodia.

“It’s very difficult for people of any description, let alone refugees, to get citizenship in Cambodia,” Thom says. “Without it, you are extremely vulnerable. That’s why we generally see people resettled from those countries, not to those countries.”

Shortly after Cambodia and Australia signed its deal, Cambodian officials visited the detention centre on Nauru.

Roshid told the Khmer Times last year he was asked three times to go to Cambodia by immigration detention centre staff, who told him his asylum claim had “no hope”.

Having been in detention for two years, he said yes. “I finally felt my chances would be better in Cambodia than Australia.”

There was little information about what was ahead of those who chose to move to Cambodia. There were no apparent guarantees from Australia of access to health or education.

The Kaldor Centre reported that no volunteers came forward, and rumours spread that vulnerable asylum seekers were under pressure to step up and prevent the embarrassment to Australia of a failed deal.

Freedom is elsewhere

In November 2016, Australia struck a deal with the US government for it to resettle up to 1,250 people held on Nauru or Manus. About 900 have already gone or are preparing to go.

Related: Australia returns 20 Sri Lankan asylum seekers after boat intercepted

New Zealand has also maintained its offer to resettle 150 people from the Manus and Nauru cohorts every year, and while the Australian Coalition government has consistently rejected it, there are signs it may be wavering.

A growing number are now finding their own paths to freedom, through private sponsorship in other countries such as Switzerland and Canada.

But for Roshid, freedom in Cambodia is fraught with obstacles and he is desperate for another country to offer him a chance to make a decent life for himself.

“There were many times when people took my money and I couldn’t report it anywhere. No one recognises my paper. I will always be considered an outsider, and I can’t see a clear path to citizenship in this country. So I will always struggle with my life here. I am just stuck in limbo without a future in sight.”

The Department of Home Affairs tells Guardian Australia the government has fulfilled its agreements with those settled in Cambodia. A spokesman says it does not comment on individual cases, but that those resettled in Cambodia received “comprehensive support, including financial support, healthcare, housing, education and family reunification”.

“Individuals also received assistance to apply for and obtain refugee documentation. These documents allowed individuals to obtain a driver’s license, travel documents and confirmed work rights,” he says.

Refugees living in Cambodia were eligible to apply for Khmer nationality through naturalisation after seven years, he says.

Guardian Australia has contacted the Cambodian government for confirmation.

Amnesty’s Thom says Australia has to take responsibility for Roshid.

“It was a deal they signed with Cambodia and it was never going to be a long-term solution, they have to realise that,” he says.

“Australia has invested at least $55m into their solution but it hasn’t worked. They have to accept that and ensure that at a minimum he can be eligible for the US deal.”

The US state department has indicated there is no avenue for Roshid to pursue resettlement through the Australian program.

A spokesman tells Guardian Australia the US’s arrangement with Australia was for eligible refugees referred to it by the UNHCR who currently reside in Australia’s regional processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, or who are temporarily in Australia for medical reasons. It refers further questions to the Australian government.