Southeast Asia - a region whose economy is thriving, and population booming. However, it’s also known as a region that’s facing the refugee crisis.
Whenever we heard about the issue of refugees in Southeast Asia, most people would immediately think of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Surely it is one of the emerging refugee crisis for the past few years especially as the current de facto head of government is a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Living as a refugee can be a struggle. Refugees feel vulnerable, powerless and often invisible.
In Southeast Asia, the protection space available for refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless people is fragile and unpredictable. This is due to the lack of national legal frameworks in most of these countries. In fact, some states have introduced restrictive policies such as denying safe disembarkation or access at the airport and narrowing protection space and access to asylum. There is also an increase in maritime pushbacks and instances of refoulment.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are not signatory to international refugee conventions and do not have laws specific to the protection of refugees. Refugees and asylum seekers are often considered illegal, and are at constant risk of arrest and detention if they are without valid documentation.
In addition to not being a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Malaysia lacks the legislative and administrative framework to address refugee matters; this has continued to pose various challenges to its sovereignty for decades. As a result, all asylum seekers and refugees are treated as irregular migrants, and in the absence of substantive engagement by the authorities, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) remains the last option to shoulder the burden of their international protection responsibilities.
Asian states recognised refugees in the region, which was worsened by the fact that only a few of these countries are signatories of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: Cambodia and the Philippines – members of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – and East Timor. However, by not signing the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the countries are not obliged under international law to protect the refugee rights including,
“The right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions” (Article 32)
“The right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State” (Article 31)
“The right to be issued identity and travel documents” (Article 27 and 28)
These are essential rights for the refugees because some countries may label the refugees as “illegal immigrants” to justify their actions to expatriate them from their territories. As some Southeast Asian states have still been involved in assisting the refugees’ crisis in the region… To what extent can we trust these countries to protect their human rights?
In conclusion, the Southeast Asian region is relatively a new-developing region where the regional institution, ASEAN, has just celebrated its 50-year anniversary. Despite most states only started to gain independence in the mid-20th century, ASEAN countries lent their hand to assist the refugee crisis in the region. However, there is still a lot of improvement needed in terms of supporting the rights of the refugees.