Uneven Refugee Protections Across Southeast Asia Put Migrants at Risk

By Estey Chen 

Though the global refugee crisis is often framed as a Western problem, developing countries host 85 percent of the world’s displaced populations. Southeast Asia hosted 2.1 million forced migrants in 2021, and among them, almost 300,000 are refugees and asylum seekers. However, most Southeast Asian countries are not signatories of international refugee treaties, and they have yet to develop a regional mechanism to coordinate policy responses to refugee populations. Mirroring ASEAN’s preference for non-interference and non-legally binding agreements, Southeast Asian countries have implemented a patchwork of regulations responding to crises as they arise. The region’s ad hoc approach to humanitarianism, combined with the international community’s apathy, has marginalized refugees.

Frustrated with processing delays that can reach up to 11 years, Afghan refugees staged a series of protests outside the local Indonesian offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) in August and November. Indonesia hosted over 13,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2021, over 7,000 of whom fled from Afghanistan. At one 24-hour sleep-in protest in front of the IOM office, a 22-year-old refugee who has been waiting for resettlement for over five years set himself on fire, reflecting the alarming pattern of refugees committing suicide while under UNHCR and IOM care.  

To date, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste are the only Southeast Asian countries to have acceded to the United Nations’ 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol mandate the UNHCR to coordinate three durable solutions for refugees: local integration in a host country, voluntary return to the refugee’s country of origin, or permanent cross-border resettlement in a third country like the United States. The treaties prohibit signatories from forcibly returning refugees to the countries from which they fled, a customary international law principle known as non-refoulement. Signatories must also guarantee rights like access to elementary education, wage-earning employment, and housing.

In lieu of signing up for this international framework, individual Southeast Asian countries have slowly developed their own refugee policies, often in reaction to emergencies. Non-signatories have not wholly shunned the principle of non-refoulement. Indonesia passed regulations in 2010 and 2016 permitting IOM to establish a community housing system and monitor asylum seekers. Additionally, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia permit UNHCR to distribute identification cards to refugees and IOM to distribute small allowances for basic needs like food and housing. IOM Indonesia—which is primarily funded by the Australian government in what some have argued is an attempt to keep migrants away from its shores—provides adult refugees with a monthly allowance of $86 and children with an allowance of $34, slightly above the international poverty line of $1.90 a day. Though most Southeast Asian countries have avoided legally binding international commitments on refugees, in practice, their ad hoc responses to the refugee crisis do respect some core tenets of international law. 

However, the importance of legally enshrined non-refoulement protections is brought into sharp relief by Southeast Asia’s lack of participation in formal international refugee frameworks. Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia have a controversial history of forcibly turning away and repatriating refugees and asylum seekers. In November, Thai authorities deported four Cambodian activists from a banned opposition party who left Cambodia out of fear of political persecution. Upon their return, Cambodia detained the four UNHCR refugees. Malaysia and Thailand also received criticism in February and March for deporting asylum seekers and refugees back to Myanmar in the wake of the military coup. Karen Information Center, an activist group in Thailand and Myanmar, reported that the Thai government pushed back over 2,000 refugees fleeing junta air raids in Myanmar after they had crossed the border. Amid reports in late December that Thailand pushed back another 600 refugees from Myanmar, Thailand has also escalated its security presence along the Myanmar-Thailand border. By blocking asylum seekers from reaching Thailand’s UNHCR offices—as physical presence is required to begin the refugee status determination process—Thailand can preempt international criticism.

Moreover, in countries that have not signed onto the United Nations’ refugee treaties, uneven coverage of rights protections can undermine refugees’ welfare. UNHCR refugee identity cards do not guarantee third country resettlement or full integration in a temporary asylum country. Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia exclude refugees from their public schools. Approximately 60,000 refugee children in Malaysia rely on 128 schools, only 22 of which offer secondary education, operated by UNHCR and community-based organizations. Given their informal nature, these schools struggle with inadequate classroom materials, facilities, and retention of qualified teachers. Additionally, refugees are prohibited from pursuing legal employment paths to supplement their meager allowances, pushing them into illegal work environments where they are vulnerable to exploitation. According to the Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Malaysia report, traffickers force refugee children into begging schemes, wield travel debts to coerce young Southeast Asian men and women into forced labor, and “lure Rohingya women and girls out of refugee camps in Bangladesh” to become commercial sex workers. 

International treaties and verbal commitments are no silver bullet to improving refugee welfare. Among the three Southeast Asian signatories to the UNHCR treaties, the Philippines has been the most vocal about its willingness to temporarily host Afghan and Rohingya refugees. However, the Philippines only hosts a small fraction of the region’s refugees, a potential consequence of its geographic location on the eastern edge of maritime Southeast Asia. In 2021, the Philippines hosted 1,300 refugees and asylum seekers. By comparison, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, which all have lower GINI inequality index scores than the Philippines, hosted a combined total of 289,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2021. These discrepancies suggest that the national narrative of Filipino hospitality does not neatly align with reality on the ground.

While countries like the United States and Australia have been slow to open their borders and prioritized “outsourcing” migration control to Southeast Asian transitory asylum countries, refugees have languished in limbo without basic rights. Faced with limited paths for self-improvement, especially amid a global pandemic, the physical and mental well-being of refugees has diminished. Overcoming this grim reality will require collaboration among international governmental and nongovernmental organizations, permanent and temporary asylum countries, and private actors to simultaneously expedite permanent resettlement and improve refugees’ quality of life within host countries. 

Estey Chen is a former research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.