With under half of all Asian countries having signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or having any domestic legislation in place, refugees in the region are forced to live on the fringes of society.
In today's public and political discourses, the words ‘refugee' and ‘migrant' are used almost interchangeably. There is often no distinction made between someone fleeing violence and persecution, and someone moving for the sake of a better life or other voluntary reasons. With a historical reticence towards formalised refugee protection within the region, governments and the public have not felt compelled to challenge laws or practises relating to refugee protection.
In Southeast Asia, a large number of refugees live in urban centres such as Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. They live in apartments side by side with local Indonesians, Malaysians and Thais. They catch local buses, eat at local restaurants and shop at local markets. For some, their kids even go to local schools. However, there are several pronounced differences between the lives of local citizens and refugees.
That is, refugees and asylum seekers cannot work, have limited access to education, limited access to healthcare and often face arrest and detention for immigration violations.
I am not and hopefully will never be a refugee. As I've never had to flee my homeland, it is incredibly difficult for me to imagine making such a decision. Leaving my family. Leaving my friends. Leaving everything that is familiar to me.
Refugees are forced to travel to foreign lands with limited resources, almost no social connections, and a very limited ability to fully integrate into the host society. This is especially true in Southeast Asia where refugees are considered almost exclusively through an immigration lens. Their need for protection and safety is not seen as a government concern but rather is left up to other actors.
It is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), non-governmental organisations and host communities that are left to fill these voids.
To provide some context, after arriving in Southeast Asia most refugees register themselves at UNHCR offices in order to undergo refugee status determination. As most Southeast Asian states are not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the UNHCR steps in to conduct this process on behalf of the government. Due to severe funding limitations and substantial numbers of people seeking protection, this process can often take a very long time. During these months and years, refugees are forced to fend for themselves in unpredictable and unstable environments.
As soon as they arrive in their country of asylum, many refugees attempt to move from a tourist visa to a more long-term visa to allow them to remain in the country legally. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done and it is nearly impossible for passport holders from most refugee generating countries to maintain a valid visa. They soon become illegal in the eyes of immigration authorities.
This, combined with the fact that UNHCR documents are not necessarily recognised by local authorities, means that many refugees often end up charged with immigration offences and detained. For some, this detention can stretch into years of confinement while they wait for a decision on their case and potential resettlement to a third country.
Over the course of several years working with refugees I have met scores that have been detained in immigration facilities across Southeast Asia. The conditions in detention in many cases border on inhumane.
Charles (not his real name) spent a total of 7 months in immigration detention in Thailand. In addition to his visible weight loss, he also suffered a significant amount of mental trauma and anguish. In fact during one visit to take him some fresh food and clothes, he pleaded for me to help send him home to his country of origin.
"I don't want to stay here," he said. "Let them send me home. I don't care anymore. I would rather go home, be arrested and die there."
For those that manage to stay out of detention, life remains a constant battle to eek out an existence. With no legal capacity to work, refugees are forced to search for employment in the informal sector, a decision that means they are often exploited and paid well below market rates. Once again this places refugees in a precarious situation where their lives are made ever more difficult and uncertain.
Despite this doom and gloom, refugee issues are on the global agenda more than ever.
This is primarily because of the ‘global refugee crisis' where scores of individuals, many from war-torn Syria, made their way to Europe in search of safety.
In practical terms, this global refugee crisis highlighted another more sinister and deeply entrenched issue i.e. a ‘global responsibility crisis'.
There is a crisis of responsibility amongst states regarding who is responsible for protecting refugees. We see many countries with policies and practises geared towards pushing people away instead of providing protection to them.
Refugees are also often considered a ‘burden' and not a responsibility. It must be recognised that every single country around the world has a responsibility towards refugees. Many countries produce refugees. Other countries receive refugees. For some countries, they do both.
In Southeast Asia, governments cannot close their eyes and wait for other countries to step up and ‘do their part'. It is not the sole responsibility of the United States and nor is it the sole responsibility of Australia or Canada.
In stark contrast, it is the responsibility of every nation to contribute towards the safety and protection of people fleeing persecution. For many years some Southeast Asian governments have absolved themselves of responsibility and looked towards the global north to resettle refugees within their borders. However, as countries in the region are becoming wealthier and more advanced, so is their capacity to deal with and support refugees that arrive on their doorstep.
Thankfully, there are some tentative steps forward that are being taken. In Malaysia for example, the government has recently opened a pilot programme to 300 Rohingya refugees to work in the plantation fields. While the pilot itself has some problematic aspects, providing work rights is an extremely welcome step by the Malaysian government.
In addition, in Indonesia a Presidential Declaration on Asylum Seekers and Refugees was recently signed which essentially provides a policy framework regarding the protections that should be provided to these populations.
Finally, Thailand also recently announced their intention to create a screening mechanism to distinguish between individuals that require protection and those who do not.
Whilst these advancements should be applauded, there also needs to be continued support by other nations to ensure these initiatives are successful. Western nations, international organisations and non-governmental actors must work hand in hand to ensure these glimmers of hope eventually transform into robust shining examples.