Refugees and Displacement

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Contents

Overview

Background (Refugees in SEA)

Over a million refugees currently reside in Southeast Asia[1]. Countries in the region have also had a long history of hosting refugees since the World War 2 period, including Singapore. This is a result of past and ongoing regional conflicts such as the Rohingya refugee crisis and internal conflict in Myanmar.

History of Refugees in SEA

After World War 2, conflicts such as the Chinese Civil War resulted in a large-scale movement of refugees, and between countries in Southeast Asia. Thailand has played host to refugees from Myanmar for decades[2], while the end of the Second Indochina War in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam also sparked an influx of refugees from these countries to Thailand and other neighbouring states such as Malaysia. Many refugees who were known as “Boat People” also undertook perilous journeys by boat to escape Vietnam, leaving for destinations in the region such as Hong Kong, The Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore[3]. The map below indicates the movement of refugees within Southeast Asia following the end of the Second Indochina War.


Southeast Asian states adopted a mix of policies in handling the Vietnamese refugee crisis, providing refugees with shelter in certain instances while turning them away at other times[4]. Following a 1979 conference convened by the United Nations, third countries in the West (including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, the United States and Australia) agreed to facilitate the resettlement of Indochinese refugees. Vietnam also agreed to control the exit of refugees. The numbers of refugees leaving by boat have declined as more refugees were able to utilise alternative means to travel to transit countries or directly to the West where they were resettled[5]. The map below indicates where most refugees from Indochina were resettled from 1975 to 1997.

ASEAN Policy on Refugees

Apart from Cambodia and The Philippines, ASEAN states have not signed the Refugee Convention/Protocol which guarantees asylum seekers and refugees rights such as non-refoulement. Asylum seekers are often treated as illegal immigrants under national laws and are at risk of being repatriated to their home country. The map below shows countries in ASEAN that have signed the Refugee Convention/Protocol.

ASEAN countries have also reached the following agreements pertaining to refugees:

Agreement Description
1966 Bangkok Principles

(ASEAN states except Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos)

  • Defines refugees according to the 1951 Refugee Convention
  • Agreement to respect principle of non-refoulement
  • Affirms right of all individuals to seek asylum
  • Acknowledges sovereign right of states to grant or refuse asylum
  • Nonbinding, states not required to implement policies and laws after agreeing to principles
2012 ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights
  • Affirms right of all individuals to seek asylum
  • Right to seek asylum must be in accordance with laws of the state or related international agreements
  • Most ASEAN states do not have national laws regarding asylum seekers and refugees


Present Situation

Most refugees in Southeast Asia come from Myanmar and are displaced as a result of Myanmar’s protracted ethnic conflicts. Refugees and asylum seekers usually journey to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. Apart from Myanmar, refugees and asylum seekers in Southeast Asia also come from countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan and they are concentrated mostly in Malaysia, which has around 20,000 of such refugees and asylum seekers[6]. Refugees and asylum seekers from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa heading to Australia have also used Indonesia as a transit point in the past, with the number of refugees arriving in Australia by boat falling from a peak of over 6000 in 2010 to less than 10 in 2020[7].

Priority Issues

Singapore

Click here to view the section on Singapore.

ASEAN

Although the situation in Southeast Asia has been largely stable after the Cold War with Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia joining ASEAN, there has been a large increase in the number of internally displaced persons and refugees in the region in recent years. Events which have led to this increase include the Rohingya Refugee Crisis, protracted internal conflict in Myanmar, as well as internal displacement in Mindanao and Marawi caused by internal conflict in The Philippines.

Knowledge Gaps

General

According to a literature review by Feinstein International Center, there are knowledge gaps in refugee management.

  • Lack of analysis on the migration patterns of refugees in developing countries
    • Most forced displacement takes place within developing countries as but thorough datasets mostly cover regular international migration between more developed countries in Europe for example.
    • This would accurately pinpoint the countries and actors who are involved in the movement of the refugees, consequently lessening the tragedies that refugees might face.
  • Lack of aggregated information on the identities and needs of refugees in order to prioritise support
    • This is mainly due to only the most accessible groups of refugees being studied while less-accessible groups are largely ignored[8]. There is relatively little research on unregistered refugees and the forcibly displaced who do not consider themselves refugees or the illegible places in cities that often host these groups.
    • This leads to inability to provide lifesaving services, both in transit and at their destination.
    • Critical care and protection for children who have experienced or witnessed violence in their country or while in search of safety cannot be administered effectively.
    • Thus, there is a need for reliable and better data on child migrants. Data disaggregation by age, sex and origin can inform policymakers of the real needs of child refugees for example, ensure that no child is left behind and that they are not exploited.
  • Research also tends to focus on formal government-sponsored resettlement and UNHCR’s local integration durable solution, rather than the much more common informal systems—like irregular migration, the grey economy, and loosely affiliated community-based organizations or networks—that migrants and host populations utilize to move and become integrated.


Singapore

There is an overall lack of research and data, likely due to Singapore's strict no-refugee policy. The identified information gaps include the following:

  • The number of refugees and asylum seekers in Singapore and the attempts made by individuals to seek asylum in Singapore
    • There is no publicly available tally of refugees conducted by government bodies in Singapore.
  • The avenues where legislation in Singapore can be altered to aid refugees in the region as well as benefit Singapore.
    • There is a need to understand the opportunities to include refugees in the projected population growth from 5.8 million people to 6.9 million people by 2030, as stated in the 2013 Population White Paper.  
    • There is also an absence of mapping the various ways refugees  in the region can contribute and the types of capital (e.g. social capital, intellectual capital, cultural capital) they have.
  • The position and role Singapore (as a geographical location) plays in the movements of refugees in the region.
  • An updated analysis of the perceptions, attitudes and opinions of Singaporeans to the aiding and resettlement of refugees in Singapore


Singapore

Singapore's history of hosting Vietnamese refugees

Origins

When the Vietnam War ended, many asylum seekers fled to Southeast Asian countries on ships and fishing boats requesting asylum due to the political situation in Vietnam. The first wave of Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived in Singapore in 1975 after the fall of Saigon.

In response, the Singapore Government conducted Operation Thunderstorm, intercepting, quarantining and preventing them from entering Singapore. Over 8000 refugees and 64 ships were stopped by the Singapore Navy over a 14-day period[9]. These asylum seekers were mostly turned away and given food, fuel and other provisions to continue their journey. However, some 108 of these asylum seekers who were fishermen were eventually offered permanent residency by the Singapore government in October 1975[10].

Despite the measures taken under Operation Thunderstorm, further waves of Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived in Singapore over the next few years due to the deteriorating political situation in Vietnam. In response, a new policy was thus imposed by the Singapore government in October 1978.

This policy allowed asylum seekers recognised as refugees to temporarily stay in Singapore if they were picked up by cargo vessels outside Singapore waters. The country where the ship was registered in also had to assure the Singapore government that the refugees would be resettled in its territory[11]. All expenses for the refugees’ stay in Singapore were funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as the Singapore Red Cross and Catholic Welfare Charities[12]. The diagram below shows the number of asylum seekers entering Singapore from 1977 to 1987.

The Hawkins Road Refugee Camp

The Hawkins Road Camp in Sembawang was set up in 1978 to host asylum seekers recognised as refugees awaiting resettlement in a third country. A former British army barracks, the refugee camp was considered more humane, with better living conditions than other camps in the region due to its relatively lower population[13].

Refugees were only allowed to stay for 90 days at most, and the camp could not contain more than 1000 people at any time, although some exceptions were made. They were given a $2.50/day allowance by the Red Cross and were allowed to leave the camp at specified hours. Medical and other services such as education and mail were provided by the UNHCR in coordination with the Red Cross and the Catholic Welfare Charities. A fee of $8000/month was also charged to UNHCR for lease of the camp[14].

In 1989, the Comprehensive Plan of Action was passed, which imposed stricter rules on resettling Vietnamese asylum seekers to third countries. Many asylum seekers were denied refugee status and faced forced repatriation to Vietnam. This contrasted with previous practices where asylum seekers were generally recognised as refugees[15].

Asylum seekers who had their refugee claims denied refused to leave the camp and engaged in protests, hunger strikes and even suicide attempts. The camp eventually closed in June 1996 when the last refugees were voluntarily repatriated back to Vietnam[16].

Singapore's current policy and position on refugees

Singapore has not acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol of the Status of Refugees. The Singapore government’s stance after it stopped hosting Vietnamese refugees is that Singapore is not in any position to receive any asylum seekers due to its limited land space. This stance is also partly caused by the negative experience it had in hosting Vietnamese asylum seekers as third countries failed to resettle them as promised after the Comprehensive Plan of Action was passed in 1989[17].

As reiterated by the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1978, “You’ve got to grow calluses on your heart or you just bleed to death.”[18] The same sentiment was repeated in 2015 by a spokesperson from the Ministry of Home Affairs, “As a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin”[19]. This came following an exodus of some 5,000 asylum seekers from Bangladesh and Burma looking to land somewhere in Southeast Asia.

There is no national framework or legal definition relating to refugees nationally in Singapore, and any potential asylum seekers claiming refugee status are dealt with under the 1959 Immigration Act. This act states that asylum seekers are subject to penalties such as caning, imprisonment and deportation if found guilty of violating the act, as they are considered to be “prohibited immigrants.”

Despite such constraints, the UNHCR has been able to carry out refugee status determination for asylum seekers referred to it by the authorities[20], while the Singapore government has indicated its willingness to assist asylum seekers in departing to third countries for resettlement by providing humanitarian assistance[21]. However, there is a possibility that some asylum seekers might be convicted and deported under the Immigration Act instead of being referred to the UNHCR as Singapore does not recognise the international customary law of non-refoulement[22]. Thus, persons of concern who turn up on Singapore’s shores will most likely face one of two scenarios i.e. detention and/or deportation[23].

Ultimately, Singapore’s position is that it is willing to provide humanitarian assistance through donations and aid to refugees displaced by conflict such as the Rohingya, but the responsibility of taking care of them falls on stakeholders directly involved such as the neighbouring countries hosting them[24].

Perception towards refugees and migrants

A 2019 study conducted by Advocates For Refugees - Singapore (AFR-SG) interviewed over 30 Singaporeans aged between 20 to 70+ on their perceptions towards refugees and migrants. These were the findings from the survey:

Understanding of Refugees

For Many:

  •       Perceptions on Refugees are largely shaped by the media
  •       Issues on refugees are distant


They largely believed that:

  • Refugees exist due to lack of government protection from conflicts involving issues such as race and religion
  • Refugees were helpless and could lose their lives if they had nowhere to go, although some felt instead that they had a choice between leaving or staying on
  • Refugees were mostly from South Asia or the Middle East
  • Singaporeans should be compassionate towards refugees as fellow human beings


Singapore's Policy on Refugees

Most who were interviewed:

  • Felt Singapore should not host refugees due to its limited land capacity and resources, with other more pressing domestic issues to be resolved
  • Thought that refugees mostly originate from the Global South (countries with lower gross domestic product which are located on one side of the so-called global North–South divide)
  • Believed that refugees need to be able to contribute to the economy for Singapore to host them-by working in physical, blue collar labour
  • Were concerned about taxpayer money being spent to support refugees if Singapore hosted them
  • Believed that many Singaporeans would “protest” if the government decided to host refugees, due to the above reasons


Many also felt that:

  • Having refugees in Singapore would affect Singapore’s socio-political order due to varying cultural norms, practices and behaviours
  • Refugees would affect Singapore’s security with issues like rising crime rates, and associated countries accepting refugees with these issues


A quote from one respondent reflects this concern:

“I think Singaporean’s mental and emotional health are not ready for this... It’s not that refugees are dangerous, but integration into the community, laws and regulations to be set in place for protection, education and jobs to be shared, living space etc.. to ensure their quality of living. And we also need to vet refugees, how many terrorists are hidden within them?”


Despite such views:

  • Most felt that Singaporeans should help refugees overseas by donating or volunteering overseas
  • About half of respondents were open to Singapore hosting refugees to study/work, if they could contribute to the economy and sufficient economic and infrastructural resources and steps are taken to integrate them well into society


Action by Different Stakeholders

Refugees

Refugees bring with them diversity, tradition, culture, knowledge and skills.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)[25], refugees can contribute economically to the societies that welcome them in many ways: as workers, innovators, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, consumers and investors.. In the long run, both refugees and host countries experience mutual benefits from taking refugees in.

  • Example: ⅓ of recent refugees in Sweden are graduates and more than ⅔ of those have skills which match graduate job vacancies.
    • Similarly, enterprising refugees can start businesses that generate wealth and employ locals, which makes the economy more dynamic and adaptable, and boosts international trade and investment.
  • Example: Due to the Sino-Japanese War, Li Ka-shing and his family were forced to flee to Hong Kong in the 1940s. He is now one of the most influential Asian entrepreneurs in Asia, with a net worth of US$34.8 billion.


Governments

Governments, through their ability to provide aid and support, have a big part to play in shaping the future of refugees. In the context of Singapore, while Singapore is currently not signatory to 1951 Refugee Convention, it contributes by providing financial and in-kind support to aid humanitarian crises. Yet, there are still many different ways and actionable opportunity areas that the Singapore government can contribute to refugee situations in the region. Here are some ways that the Singapore government can help:

  • Externally
    • Influence within ASEAN
    • Influence as the biggest investor in a country like Myanmar
  • Internally
    • Revise fundraising rule 80:20 for humanitarian causes
    • Educating the younger generations through formal school curriculum about migration, including forced migration
ASEAN

ASEAN builds its foundation on the principle of non-interference when dealing with domestic matters of other ASEAN members.

With regards to the ongoing Rohingya Refugee Crisis, ASEAN has been accused by a group of regional lawmakers for being “caught between respect for its key principles of consensus and non-interference… and (an) international and domestic outcry on the other.”[26]

ASEAN has yet to provide a clear response as to how they would deal with the situation of the Rohingya Refugee Crisis, and how to stop the atrocities and violation of human rights[27]. While ASEAN was founded on the principle of non-interference, their hesitation and unwillingness to come up with an effective solution towards the Rakhine State has been largely criticised[28] for hindering the international movement towards the end of human rights violations. ASEAN’s inaction could also be viewed as them being an accomplice to human rights abuses in the Rakhine State.

According to Human Rights Watch, ASEAN member states should offer support for rescue and disembarkation efforts as well as try to aid in the crisis by opening and accepting refugees into their borders[29].

According to the ASEAN Parliament for Human Rights (APHR), in order to tackle the Rohingya Crisis effectively, ASEAN must first “understand and acknowledge all aspects of the crisis, whether human rights, political, humanitarian, social, or economic.”[30]


Media

Media plays an important role in influencing the opinions of its audience through its framing and frequency of stories. Hence, the media is a primary stakeholder in sharing and disseminating timely and unbiased news and information on refugee crises.

According to the Ethical Journalism Network[31], in order to garner more action amongst political leaders and the public, they must first fully understand and be aware of the situation. This is where the media comes into play - by reporting and making such issues accessible to the public, to create public awareness and to spark dialogue. This is crucial to generate political will and interest to take action against such issues. Hence, the media can potentially be  a positive force to motivate humanitarian action.

Singapore Context

  • The Singapore media rarely covers issues on refugees in the region - likely due to lack of press freedom, considering Singapore ranks 160 out of 180 on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. This, in turn, could reflect why there is a general lack of awareness of the situation amongst the local community.

Ethics of Media

There are certain guidelines that the media must follow in order to “avoid the dangers lurking in an aggressive and competitive media landscape.”[32]

Guidance for Migration Reporting[33]

  • Facts not bias - be transparent
  • Know the law
  • Show humanity (Essence of ethical journalism)
  • Speak for all
  • Challenge hate


Businesses

Globalisation has allowed for the rise of non-state actors, especially that of Multinational Corporations (MNCs), with  some MNCs powerful enough to influence how states act. While states are largely the main actors in shaping and adopting policies, MNCs can now also play a role in moulding international politics. Thus, businesses have a part to play in addressing the refugee crisis. Moreover, with the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), refugees and businesses can mutually benefit from corporate aid to the refugee crisis.

Examples of Inclusive Hiring for Refugees:

  • Boxgreen is a company based in Singapore that has opened their team to include refugees and asylum seekers. Boxgreen’s onboarding programme will also equip them with the technology they need, and support their communities during their period of transition.
  • Barehands is another local (Singapore) for-profit enterprise that is committed to building strong and sustainable communities over time. They have also worked with refugee artisans in Malaysia to provide a sustainable livelihood for them.


Actionable Opportunity Areas

Be a transit country

Case Study: Hong Kong

Similar to Singapore, Hong Kong is also a country with relatively small land space, and is also not signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. It also has one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates worldwide with around 13,000 protection claimants. Although there are 231 substantiated asylum-seekers out of the 22,737 torture/non-refoulement claims in the past 11 years, the provisions that the Hong Kong government offers once the resettlement is approved is noteworthy[34]:

  1. Housing: HK$1,500 (US$194) per adult or half of that amount for a child would be paid directly to the landlord for housing, and HK$300 (US$39) given per household for spending on utilities.
  2. Household Expenses: An e-card for supermarkets with HK$1,200 (US$155) per adult for food, and HK$300 (US$39) per household for spending on utilities
  3. Transport: Cash for transportation (only HK$200 - 300) is given.
  4. Education: Educational support is provided for refugee children 6 years old and above, leaving 3-5 year-olds with no preparation in crucial areas of early childhood education such as math and phonics. 3 to 5 year-old children can claim for a one-off grant (up to HK$3,885/year) to help cover education costs according to the Student Finance Office website.


However, these grants are not enough and applications take a long time to process. Additionally, these subsidies are not compatible with rapidly increasing inflation rates that lead to high living costs. The government also has strict working restrictions which do not allow for refugees/asylum seekers.

Be a resettlement country

Case Study: Canada

Canada is a leading refugee resettlement country with one of the most robust systems for refugee protection and resettlement. The government also actively puts forth new schemes to continuously aid refugees. The key policies and schemes are listed below:

  1. Government-Assisted Refugees (GAR) program
    1. Refugees are referred to Canada for resettlement by UNHCR or another referral organization. Individuals cannot apply directly. GARs receive support for up to one year from the date they arrive in Canada, or until they are able to support themselves, whichever happens first.
  2. Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program
    1. Allows Canadians to resettle specific individuals or families who qualify as refugees under Canada’s refugee and humanitarian program. More than 350,000 refugees have been welcomed to Canada under PSR program
  3. Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (EMPP)
    1. Empowers refugees by ensuring that they are not just victims but can contribute to their host countries.
    2. The EMPP helps Canadian employers find skilled refugees to meet their labour needs, while providing safe and durable solutions for refugees in need of protection in Canada. They provide additional ways for refugees, who have skills that Canadian employers need, to find a home in Canada while contributing to the country’s economic growth[35].


Understanding Responsibility Sharing – Why should we help?

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is the principle that all states have a commitment to protecting its population against the worst forms of violence such as ethnic cleansing, genocide and war crimes. In addition, states have the duty to utilise diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means through the United Nations (UN) framework to protect populations from violence if the states they reside in fail to fulfil their obligations under R2P[36]. Singapore has described itself as a long-time supporter of the R2P since this principle was agreed by UN member states at the 2005 World Summit[37],  and hosting refugees fleeing from violence in countries such as Myanmar would demonstrate Singapore’s commitment to fulfilling this principle.


While Singapore is a small nation state with a land area of only 724.2 square kilometres, it is one of the wealthiest states in the world with a real gross domestic product per capita (on a purchasing power parity basis) of over $97,000 international dollars in 2019, which makes it well-endowed with the financial resources to aid refugees[38].  Being a country whose survival is closely intertwined with that of international peace and stability, Singapore has also participated in various UN initiatives on international peacekeeping[39] and promoted global sustainable development by working with agencies such as the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs and providing technical assistance to developing countries[40]. Providing greater assistance to refugees in the region would be in Singapore’s interests given Singapore’s commitment to promoting international peace and stability as a responsible member of the global community. Singapore’s experience with hosting Vietnamese refugees in the past also places it in good stead to host refugees in transition to third countries for resettlement.


Other long term benefits Singapore could see by taking in refugees are:

  • An increase in productivity, thus improving the economy
  • Addressing Singapore’s need for labour as refugees can complement the job market
  • Supporting the growth of Singapore’s population given Singapore’s low birth rate and aging population


Click here to find out more about actionable opportunity areas for refugees in Singapore.

Definitions

Refugees (forced displacement)

Legal Definition Under the Refugee Convention

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Membership of a particular social group, or
  • Political opinion

The person must also be outside of their country of nationality or country that they lived in habitually. They must also be unwilling or unable to return to that country or utilise forms of protection offered by the country[41]. This definition is accepted by UNHCR and states which have accepted the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the related 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.


Palestinian Refugees

A group of refugees that do not fall under the UNHCR’s mandate are Palestinian refugees. They are defined as people who:

  • Normally lived in Palestine from 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948
  • Lost their homes and occupations because of the 1948 Arab Israeli Conflict
  • Or who are descendants of male refugees recognised under this definition[42]

These refugees are under the care of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).


Other Definitions

Apart from these definitions, other states and intergovernmental organisations have broader definitions of refugees which also include people fleeing to another state to escape from general violence or foreign invasions. These include the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration which was initially adopted by 10 Latin American states[43]. The UNHCR takes these definitions into account when determining the refugee status of people in countries where such definitions are applied[44]. Refugees under the broader definitions are also given protections against refoulement and are provided rights such as access to travel documents and public assistance included in the Refugee Convention/Protocol[45].


Asylum Seekers

An asylum-seeker is someone whose request for refuge has yet to be processed. The UNHCR or government agencies in charge of immigration or refugees will conduct individual interviews to determine if they meet the legal criteria to be considered as refugees[46].

However, in cases where there is widespread movement of people fleeing a country due to violence or conflict, such as the ongoing Syrian Refugee Crisis, a ‘prima facie’ approach is taken to recognising asylum seekers as refugees. Under this approach, groups of people fleeing from the conflict zone are recognised as refugees without having to undergo individual interviews[47].

Like refugees, asylum seekers are also able to receive protection from refoulement until their status is determined[48].


Internally Displaced People

Internally Displaced People (IDP) are defined by the UNHCR as persons forced or obliged to leave their homes or habitual places of residence because of, or to avoid:

  • General violence
  • Armed conflict
  • Human rights violations
  • Natural disasters
  • Man-made disasters

However, they remain in their country of citizenship or residency. Unlike refugees, IDP do not enjoy the special legal status of protection provided for refugees[49].


Stateless People

According to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, stateless people are defined as people who do not have a nationality conferred by any state under law. While stateless people may face greater discrimination and human rights violations due to their legal status, they are not classified as refugees unless they meet the legal conditions under the 1951 Refugee Convention[50].

The Rohingya are a significant group of people in Southeast Asia whose status as stateless people and refugees renders them more vulnerable and in need of support and protection.

Principle of Non-Refoulement

Non-refoulement is the principle which protects any person from being refouled (transferred from one country back to another) when there is reason to believe that doing so would place them at risk of being persecuted. International agreements such as the Refugee Convention/Protocol and the United Nations Convention Against Torture guarantee refugees and persecuted individuals protections against refoulement.

As most states have agreed to the Refugee Convention/Protocol, non-refoulement is considered international customary law[51]. This means that states which have not accepted the Refugee Convention/Protocol have to abide by the non-refoulement principle or risk being sanctioned by international courts or tribunals[52].

Many states (including those in SEA) that have not signed the Refugee Convention regularly practice refoulement. This is due to the lack of effective mechanisms to sanction states violating international law[53] .


Climate-induced migrants
Rising sea levels and increases in the frequency of extreme weather conditions due to climate change are expected to lead to large scale displacements of people. The UNHCR estimates that over 20 million people are displaced every year due to climate hazards such as rising sea levels and desertification[54].

Although the UNHCR currently refers to such people as “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change,” scholars have proposed definitions of climate refugees in anticipation of international law being revised in the future to recognise these people as refugees. One definition refers to climate refugees as “those who are forced to move from their homes and places of livelihood because of climate change impacts of water scarcity, crop failure, sea-level rise and storm surges”[55].

Climate-induced migration was first recognised by all states as an adaptation challenge at the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Subsequently, in 2011, a more coherent approach to handle the protection of people displaced by climate change was highlighted at the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement.

This was followed by the Nansen Initiative, a state-led, bottom up consultative process to identify effective and coherent solutions  in handling these issues. The result was the Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change, endorsed by 109 states (including all ASEAN states except Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore) in 2015. The Agenda offers an alternative to a binding convention on cross-border disaster displacements by providing effective policy solutions for states to prevent, prepare and improve their responses to climate-induced displacement in accordance with their regional contexts[56].

Key Statistics and Figures

General

Number of Forcibly Displaced People Worldwide

There are around 82.4 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. By mid 2020, the UNHCR recorded a total of 26.4 million refugees, of which 20.7 million are refugees. The remaining 5.7 million are Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s mandate[57].

Countries Refugees Originate From

More than two thirds (around 68%) of all refugees under UNHCR’s mandate come from just five countries[58].

Figure: The top 5 countries where the most number of refugees originate from[59]
Country Number of Refugees
Syrian Arab Republic 6.7 Million
Venezuela 4.0 Million
Aghanistan 2.5 Million
South Sudan 2.2 Million
Myanmar 1.1 Million

Countries Hosting the Most Number of Refugees

Around 39% of all refugees are hosted in these five countries. Developing countries host around 86% of the world’s refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad. The Least Developed Countries provide asylum to 28% of the total refugees. Moreover, most refugees, around 73% of all refugees, and Venezuelans displaced abroad lived in countries neighbouring their countries of origin.

Figure: The top 5 countries where the most number of refugees are hosted[60]
Country Number of Refugees
Turkey 3.7 Million
Colombia 1.7 Million
Pakistan 1.4 Million
Uganda 1.4 Million
Germany 1.2 Million


SEA Region

As there is a lack of research conducted on refugees in Southeast Asia, there is a lack of data on refugees beyond Rohingya refugees and numerous discrepancies in the data collected. As of mid-year 2020, the sub-region was home to more than 290,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar. Malaysia (179,073), Thailand (98,525) and Indonesia (13,515) hosted more than 99 per cent of the refugees and asylum-seekers in the sub-region[61].

As of mid-year 2020, Southeast Asia was home to more than 290,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar[62].

Key Statistics from the Rohingya Refugee Crisis

The largest populations of concern to UNHCR in South-East Asia continue to be those from Myanmar. Over a million Rohingyas have fled Myanmar in successive waves of displacement since the early 1990s, with Bangladesh as the main destination. An estimated 600,000 stateless Rohingya remain in Myanmar, and 25% of whom are internally displaced. There are also more than 200,000 other IDPs in Myanmar[63].

Key Statistic from Singapore

As per statistics from 2014, there were 5 refugees in Singapore[64]. This number has neither been updated or looked into since 2014. In terms of asylum applications and refugees from Singapore, 7 people from Singapore have fled in 2018 and applied for asylum in other countries. Overall, 100 percent of the asylum applications to Singapore have been rejected[65].


Map of Areas of Need and Key Issues

Pre-Departure

In the pre-departure stage, individuals or families flee for varying reasons for fear of persecution. At this stage, the key problems that persons of concern face would be refugee status determination and statelessness (if applicable). In some cases, their inability to provide forms of self-identification hinders them from taking safe routes to seek refuge in another country[66].

In transit, persons of concern may be found at formal refugee camps, informal refugee camps or urban settlements. They face many social and economic challenges on top of physical danger throughout their journey. Challenges are present in areas like child protection, education, public health, settlement and shelter and water and sanitation[67].

Unfortunately, while some may make it to their transit/final destination safely, others may be tricked and trafficked illegally by “guarantors” with false promises of a better life. This is because when desperate to leave their origin country due to dire situations, persons of concern turn to paying others to transport them to their final destinations[68].

Nevertheless, there are long term durable solutions for refugees which include resettlement, voluntary repatriation and local integration.

Reasons for fleeing

Historically, in Southeast Asia, some key reasons for persecution centre around ethnicity and political affiliation.

First, refugees may face discrimination and persecution due to their different ethnicities. Ethnicity comprises aspects like ‘ethnic nationality (i.e., country or area of origin, as distinct from citizenship or country of legal nationality), race, colour, language, religion, customs of dress or eating, tribe or various combinations of these characteristics’[69]. However, definitions of ethnicity may vary for each country[70]. For example, the Rohingya’s ethnicity is a key reason for their persecution, to the point that the United Nations has described the Rohingya as “the most persecuted minority in the world.”[71]. Hence, it can be observed that the intersection of race and religion has been seen in many cases.

Another possible reason for refugees to flee their home country is their political association. Should an individual’s political association cause them to be persecuted, the individual can be considered a refugee under the UN 1951 Refugee Convention. See here for more details.

Other Contributing Factors

  • Environmental

Climate change resulting in extreme weather and rapid sea level increases are expected to cause many to be displaced. Southeast Asia is prone to climate change, and this may cause more ‘climate-induced refugees’[72]. While ‘climate-induced refugees’ may move within their country, it is also possible that they may move to another country, especially for those refugees coming from island states[73].

  • Economic

Lack of economic opportunities at home arising from military conflict, and/or discrimination are also push factors that force people to move. Many may escape their home countries to seek ‘improved economic opportunities’[74] because their economic sources of livelihood were threatened at home.

Life in Transit

When embarking on their journey, refugees may travel via land, sea, or air. However, it is critical to note that they often do not have a choice given the various constraints that they face economically, and legally. Legal constraints include lack of proper documentation for regular migration. These journeys may occur in parts, resulting in them being on the move for extended periods of time.

Land

To travel to their destination via land routes, refugees have to travel by foot for lengthy distances even in poor weather conditions[75]. For instance, Rohingya refugees walk up to 80km to arrive in Bangladesh, weathering rain and shine, mountains and rivers[76]. Families who have elderly or physically impaired members go through a much more difficult journey as younger members may have to carry them[77]. They may also take a train, bus, or taxis to reach their destinations.

Sea

Sea journeys are viewed as one of the most dangerous routes for refugees. From  January 2018 to June 2019 there have been at least 15 refugees and asylum seekers who died while crossing rivers or seas[78]. But fatality could be significantly higher as limited data is available[79]. When refugees move irregularly (illegally), the sea journey is usually much more dangerous, especially when vessels are unsuitable for long journeys[80].

Air

Persons of concern can travel via air if they have travel documents (passport) , economic means, and the ability to obtain a visa free entry. Travel documents are crucial since airlines can be fined for transporting illegal immigrants[81].

Living Situations

Refugee Camps

Official/ Formal refugee camps are[82]:

  • Camps that have been specifically set up to accommodate refugees and asylum seekers awaiting status determination.
  • Often found near the borders of the refugees’ home country, in neighbouring states.
  • Managed by local governments and the UNHCR.
  • Temporary facilities built to provide immediate protection and assistance to people who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution or violence’.
  • Impermanent, but still a safe place for refugees to seek protection and provide basic needs like food, water, shelter, medical treatment and etcetera in times of crisis.
  • An area of protection ‘in situations of long-term displacement’. In this case, ‘...the services provided in camps are expanded to include educational and livelihood opportunities as well as materials to build more permanent homes to help people rebuild their lives’.

Although refugee camps are supposed to be a safe area for refugees, there are still many dangers that refugees are exposed to in these camps[83].

An example would be the Kutupalong Camp in Cox’s Bazar Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar is the world’s largest refugee settlement area, with a population of almost 1 million people[84]. It is overcrowded, and refugees who arrive from Myanmar are often famished and tired. The refugees at Kutupalong Camp are also subject to natural hazards such as monsoons[85].

Informal Tented Settlements

Informal tented settlements:

  • Are settlements that spring around the formal camps when space and infrastructure of formal camps cannot accommodate the influx of refugees
  • Are opted by refugees when they are unable or unwilling to stay in the formal refugee camps[86]
  • Are where approximately 60% of the world’s refugees live in[87]. This is because they have more freedom, and may have the option to choose their dwellings and undertake other economic commitments to support themselves. In formal refugee camps, refugees are constantly monitored by authorities[88]
  • Are not any better than formal settlements. ‘Conditions of settlements are often very poor with deficiencies in basic supplies (water, electricity, and/or shelter)’[89]
  • Do not provide refugees with medical benefits. Refugees living in informal camps have to pay for their own medical services as compared to those living in the refugee camps, who are sponsored by the government[90]

An example of an informal tented settlement would be the informal tented settlements in Jordan[91]. The refugees face a host of problems in various aspects like shelter, education, water, sanitation, health and food security. Click here for more details about the informal tented settlements in Jordan .

Urban Settlements

Similar to informal tented settlements, refugees can choose to reside in urban settlements due to greater freedom of choice. However, they also face similar dangers as those in informal settlements. A UNHCR policy paper in 2009[92] revealed that urban refugees are ‘confronted with a range of protection risks: the threat of arrest and detention, refoulement, harassment, exploitation, discrimination, inadequate and overcrowded shelter, as well as vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), HIV-AIDS, human smuggling and trafficking’. Nevertheless, they have a better chance to ‘make money and build a better future’[93].

An example of urban refugee settlements would be those in Malaysia. They are ‘typically run-down, low-cost, high-rise apartments located in densely populated areas. Several families and individuals share the cost of renting an apartment, with adults and children sleeping close together’[94].

Makeshift Camps

Informal or makeshift camps often appear at more inconspicuous  places where the refugees can hide from authorities. Similar to informal tented settlements, refugees have more freedom. However, conditions in makeshift settlements may not be any better than that in formal refugee camps. Furthermore, refugees who live in these informal settlements, especially in countries where they are seen as ‘illegal immigrants’ are at constant risk of getting discovered by the police and sent to detention centres.

An example of informal or makeshift camps would be the refugee jungle camps in Malaysia, where refugees reside to hide themselves from being discovered by the police. The living conditions are harsh, with refugees being subject to wet weather and frequent raids by the police[95]. The refugees cannot access healthcare at hospitals for more serious issues like broken bones for fear of their identity being discovered[96]. These informal campsites are usually pit stops before asylum seekers get to a safer place and at this stage they are likely still in the hands of traffickers. See here for another example of makeshift camps along the Malaysia-Thailand border which was a refugee trafficking camp.

Challenges Faced by refugees

Refugees face a host of challenges during their life in transit. These include problems in areas such as basic needs, access, and livelihood and employment. It is also important to note that challenges vary in different living situations.

Basic Needs
Issue Reason
WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) health-related issues: Sanitation is often poor in overpopulated refugee camps with many refugees facing various problems to access ‘clean water, sanitation and hygiene'[97]. Water shortage, water pollution, and poor sanitation (poor ‘sludge management and latrine structures’) contribute to WASH health-related diseases[98]. Additionally, denial of refugee status by host governments results in refugees getting less access to WASH facilities[98].
Shelter: Poor man-made shelter structures leave refugees vulnerable to natural hazards Poor man-made structures often fall outside the location of official camps. Since they are informal settlements, there is no proper guidance (from the host government or UNHCR) on how the settlements should be built. In Cox’s Bazar, NGOs are advised not to build permanent structures and this would also be applicable to the camp residents. Therefore, outside official refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, ‘‘refugees live in small shacks made of bamboo and tarpaulin sheets’[99], leaving them vulnerable to the threats of natural disasters like cyclones[99].
Availability of Access
Issue Reason
Education Education is crucial in refugee camps where children are potential targets for radicalization. A 2019 UNHCR report revealed that 3.7 million out of 7.1 million refugee children of school age are out of school[100]. The report further states that school enrollment rates of refugees in primary, secondary and tertiary education are 63%, 24% and 3%. The drop from primary to secondary school is drastic given the economic and cultural impediments children face. Additionally, the provision of education is also largely reliant on international donors and host governments[100].
Public Health: Overpopulation and risk of contracting covid-19/ infections/ diseases Overpopulated camps and their unsanitary living conditions are ‘conducive to the spread of communicable disease’[101], such as COVID-19[102].
Livelihood/Employment Refugees may not have equal access to employment, often having to resort to jobs in the informal sector that are dangerous and low-paying, such as work at construction sites. Generally, the key reason for this is that refugees may not be recognized in host countries as they are deemed to have entered “illegally”.


Furthermore, refugees work in sectors that are deemed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as “highly impacted” by the Covid-19 pandemic[103]. This is likely to lead to ‘widespread loss of livelihoods and an increase in poverty among this population'[103], which further highlights their job insecurity.

Protection
Issue Reason
Child protection: Children are at heightened risk of various dangers Camps can be a dangerous place for children, especially in the nighttime where child trafficking activities occur. A 2019 UNHCR report states that human trafficking is common in Cox’s Bazar camp, especially for vulnerable populations like children[104]. Cases of child exploitation, and child abuse which constitutes ‘physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and neglect’[105] are not uncommon. Child labour is also practised especially when a family’s finances are drained and adults or caregivers have no choice but to force children into labour for additional income[106].


For Rohingya refugees, what is alarming is that children who do not have access to proper education often enrol in madrasas (religious schools) which may have links with Islamic fundamentalists[107]. Hence, these children are at a heightened risk of religious radicalisation in refugee camps.

SGBV (Sexual and Gender Based Violence) Gender-based violence

In the case of Rohingya refugees, women suffer disproportionately[108]. According to TIME, more than a hundred women have quit their jobs because of overt intimidation by fundamentalists[108]. Some have even described masked men coming to their homes and threatening their families.


Sexual based violence

Female refugees are highly vulnerable to sexual and physical violence from contesting armed groups in their origin countries to being brutalised by human traffickers and border security forces when on the move. Safety continues to be elusive even after leaving conflict zones, as refugee camps continue to threaten women’s security, freedom and health[109].


Furthermore, women may not only be victims of males living in the refugee camps, but are also sexually exploited by ‘national migration administration or humanitarian staff’. Over 50% of women refugees from Syria mentioned that they have been sexually abused in a study by Caritas Lebanon, a non-governmental organisation[109].

RSD (Refugee Status Determination) Refugee status determination is key for refugees to attain basic needs in host countries. However, ‘given the huge backlog of applications in UNHCR field offices, it is not uncommon for delays of up to three years before interviews determining refugee status are conducted. In the interim, most asylum seekers have little option but to enter into illicit and sometimes illegal relationships with landlords and employers in order to survive. While the UNHCR cannot acknowledge this openly, it is aware that, given this delay in processing, registered asylum seekers have no choice but to join the informal sector[110].


Examples of Countries and Case Studies
UNHCR Camp in Cox's Bazar

As the world’s largest refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar is home to nearly 1 million people. Most problems listed above are present in Cox’s Bazar. However, there are concerted efforts to overcome these problems[111].

  • Access to food and nutrition
    • The UN has been providing assistance for food through food distributions which include ‘rice, pulses and fortified oil, as well as hot food prepared and distributed by volunteers’[111]. Other than that, the World Food Programme (WFP) also receives donations from the SharetheMeal application, where people all over the world donate meals for Rohingya refugees. On top of this, WFP also ‘operates nutrition activities that target a) children under age of five and b) pregnant and breastfeeding women’[112].
  • Education
    • Schools have been built to address the lack of education facilities in Cox’s Bazar. Additionally, UNICEF has set up the Myanmar Curriculum Pilot (MCP)[113], which targets to educate 10,000 children in Grades 6-9 following the Myanmar Curriculum.
  • Health
    • Health clinics have been set up to provide assistance for physical ailments, and psychological problems too[114]. Establishment of the Health Emergency Operations Center which was supported by the World Health Organisation ‘to enhance coordinated emergency mechanisms as public health threats emerge in and around the world’s largest refugee camp’[114].
  • Sanitation
    • A pilot programme in Cox’s Bazar has been launched to experiment with ‘collecting, drying and then burning human waste’[114].
  • Financial stability
    • The UN has supported Rohingya refugees in cash-for-work activities for families to earn their own incomes and gain financial independence and stability[114].


Informal camps in Malaysia's Jungles

Aid for refugees living in informal settlements, especially those in the jungle, remains extremely limited. This is because local governments see them as illegal migrants and raids are frequently conducted. However, there have been some attempts to help this group of refugees. For instance, in 2004, when the refugee settlement was discovered, UNHCR sent out their mobile teams to help provide official documentation for the refugees. For this particular group of refugees, whilst they face other problems as listed above, a crucial turning point for them would be to obtain documents that allow them to have access to education and healthcare[115]. Hence, aid from UNHCR for refugees to obtain official documentation of their status is the first stepping stone to improving their living conditions and other challenges they face.

Durable Resolutions

Resettlement

The first resolution for refugees is resettlement, where refugees are moved from the country where they sought asylum to another State that is willing to offer them a pathway to permanent residence. According to the UNHCR, less than 1% of refugees are resettled each year[116].

Objectives of Resettlement[117]:

  • To provide international protection and meet the specific needs of individual refugees whose life, liberty, safety, health or other fundamental rights are at risk in the country where they have sought refuge.
  • Durable solution for larger numbers or groups of refugees, alongside the other durable solutions of voluntary repatriation and local integration.
  • Tangible expression of international solidarity and a responsibility sharing mechanism, allowing States to help share responsibility for refugee protection, and reduce problems impacting the country of asylum.

Case Study: Germany's Resettlement Programme[118]

  • Resettlement criteria:
    • Legal and physical protection needs are the primary for resettlement. Special protection needs may also be considered, namely:
      • Members of persecuted minorities, including religious minorities
      • Refugees with special medical needs
      • Victims of torture and trauma
      • Single female heads of households
  • Relocation: Under resettlement, there is also ‘relocation’ which means “the movement of refugees from one EU Member State to another (intra-EU process)”. This is to help share the responsibility amongst the EU Members.


Voluntary Repatriation

Countries which are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention should accord toy the principle of non-refoulement, which prevents countries from returning an individual back to his/her  country of origin if that individual would be harmed upon return[119].

Nevertheless, another durable solution for refugees is voluntary repatriation, in which refugees have the right to choose if they want to be repatriated back home. However, should refugees choose this option, it must be done so under safe conditions and according to the wishes of the refugee[120].

For many refugees, whether they decide to return is dependent on a number of variables such as political, security and material needs[121].


Case Study: Rohingya (Myanmar)

Since there is often much resistance to resettlement, the Rohingya refugees are often pushed around by countries.

Many Rohingya people have fled to Bangladesh to seek refuge. However, since Bangladesh recognises them as Myanmar nationals[122], Bangladesh can send them back to Myanmar, even though Myanmar does not recognise them as citizens.

While there have been instances where Bangladesh tried to repatriate the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar[123], the past two attempts fell through. Currently in their third attempt, Bangladesh and Myanmar are planning to repatriate refugees in 2021[124].

However, since persecution and discrimination persist in Myanmar, voluntary repatriation is undesirable. Unless conditions are made safe and they are able to become recognised citizens of Myanmar, it is unlikely that the Rohingya would want to return back to Myanmar.


Case Study: Vietnamese Boat Refugees in Singapore (1975-1979)


Local Integration

When repatriation is not an option, refugees must try to integrate into whichever country they have fled to and try to seek help and start a new life. Based on Article 34, host countries that are contracting states of the UNHCR must do their best to “facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees”.

“Integration begins from the moment migrants arrive in their host countries and where migrants can affect their paths to integration.”[125]

According to the UNHCR, local integration refers to“permanent settlement in a country of first asylum, and eventually being granted nationality of that country.”

Local integration imposes considerable demands on both the individual and receiving society. In many cases, acquiring the nationality of the country of asylum is the culmination of this process[126].

There are many ways that refugees can integrate into their host countries such as by learning the language, culture and picking up useful skills to aid in their job search. Similarly, host countries should facilitate refugees' integrate into their society by educating their citizens[127] and providing education, job opportunities and a hospitable environment for the refugees.

Case studies of local integration can be found here.

Example of Different Refugee Crises

Refugees among Thai-Burma Border

Thailand shares a 2,401 km long border with Myanmar. According to the UNHCR, Thailand currently hosts around 91,755 refugees from Myanmar in their nine Royal Thai Government (RTG)-run temporary shelters on the Thai-Myanmar border,[128] in addition to refugees living in Bangkok and surrounding urban areas[129]. Within the camps, most of the refugees are of Karen, Karenni and Burmese ethnicity, some of whom have lived in Thailand since the mid-1980s after fleeing conflict between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military[130].

The conflict dates back to 1949, when the Karen armed struggle for equality and self-determination quickly spread all over the country alongside the government’s growing subjugation of ethnic areas[131]. The situation worsened in the 1960s when Ne Win took over the government in a military coup and established an authoritarian regime, with a series of military attacks against the Karen National Union (KNU) eventually culminating in a massive and brutal offensive in Eastern Myanmar, driving 10,000 Karen refugees into Thailand’s Tak Province[132]. This marked the beginning of the refugee outflow from Myanmar to Thailand[133].  

Today, Myanmar is once again under direct military rule. The Myanmar military, known locally as the Tatmadaw[134], has been increasing their attacks on Karen people, as shelling and mortar bombs have been happening regularly for months, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee[135].

Thailand is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees and as such, lacks comprehensive domestic legislation to protect refugees and asylum-seekers[136]. Refugees along the border are restricted from accessing national institutions (e.g. health and education) and from moving outside the camps for reasons other than accessing livelihood opportunities.

Since 2016, the official practice of the Thai government has been to focus on ‘voluntary return’ and ‘resettlement’ of refugees to third countries.[137] More than 1,000 refugees have returned to Myanmar since October 2016 through the Facilitated Voluntary Return (FVR) programme led by the governments of Thailand and Myanmar with the support of UNHCR and partners. However, a large majority have not expressed an interest to return.  

Lao Hmong Refugees in Thailand

The Hmong refugee experience is founded in their alliance with American Cold War efforts in Laos in the Vietnam War[138]. From the 1960s to 1975, the US recruited the Hmong for their fight against communism, with agreement from the Hmong who saw communism as a threat to their autonomy and independence[139].

More than 19,000 men out of the 300,000 Hmong people living in Laos were recruited into a CIA-sponsored secret operation known as Special Guerrilla Units (SGU) while others enlisted as Forces Armees du Royaume, the Laotian royal armed forces, in what is known today as “the Secret War”[140]. The Secret War weighed heavily on the Hmong and the people of Laos, with an estimated death toll of 3,000 Hmong soldiers and 6,000 more wounded that year[141].

The year 1973 marked the end of the Vietnam war as the North Vietnamese government captured Saigon and signed the Vientiane Agreement on September 14, giving the Communist Pathet Lao more control of the Lao government[142]. From 1975 onwards, the Pathet Lao overthrew the Laotian monarchy and launched an aggressive campaign to capture or kill Hmong soldiers and families who sided with the CIA[143]. This forced thousands of Hmong to flee to the jungles of Laos or to Thailand[144], with between 1,000 to 3,000 Hmong being airlifted by the US to Thailand[145].

Those who remained in Lao D.P.R. formed the Chao Fa political party with a headquarter in Phoua Bia, to defend their freedom and rights[146] while others fled to Thailand or got resettled in countries like the US, France, Canada and Australia[147].

Those who remain in Lao D.P.R. continue to worry for their safety. Since 2016, there have been sustained military incursions into the jungle area around the Phou Bia region[148]. The Lao military have increasingly made it difficult for the Hmong to live in the area, limiting their access to food, housing, water, sanitation, and healthcare by building installations and bases and destroying shelters in the area[149]. Since early 2017, the Lao military have reportedly used tanks and heavy artillery and fired indiscriminately into Hmong territory, with such attacks continuing to date[150].

Many who decided to flee crossed the heavily patrolled Mekong River to Thailand, where they lived in refugee camps set up by non-governmental organisations like the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), the International Rescue Committee and the Thai Ministry of the Interior[151]. However, since the mid-1990s, the Thai government closed all official refugee camps in Thailand, and those who still resided in the camps were sent to transit camps to await repatriation to Laos[152]. Several thousand also fled to the rural areas of Thailand, or to Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist monastery where a local religious leader organised shelter and services[153]. The Hmong community at the monastery was tolerated by Thai officials only until 2003, when they decided to close the complex, which led to a resettlement programme for Hmong refugees to the US[154].

Because of America’s role in the US-led war in Laos, approximately 90 percent of Hmong refugees have been resettled to the US[155]. According to a US congress bill, nearly 200,000 Hmong refugees (and others such as of Lao, Khmu, Mien or Yao descent) have resettled in the US as permanent residents or have become citizens since 1975.[156] Most of them live in the areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan[157]. However, in 2020, the Trump Administration submitted a proposal to deport thousands of Hmong and Lao Americans who have committed crimes back to Laos[158], a proposal that was later met by a US Congress Bill to defer their removal, grant authorisation for employment and prohibit the detention of the Hmong[159].

Rohingya Refugee Crisis

The Rohingya people are an ethnic Muslim minority group living in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar[160] who have faced many years of institutionalised discrimination. They trace their origins in the region back to the fifteenth century, when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom[161]. Before the most recent exodus in 2017, majority of the estimated one million Rohingya in Myanmar resided in Rakhine state[162].

The discrimination against the Rohingya dates back to 1962, when General Ne Win incited a military coup and came to power in Burma[163]. Since then, successive Burmese governments have rejected Rohingya claims of their Burmese roots, instead claiming that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh[164]. The Rohingya have been the targets of violent and large-scale crackdowns, such as Operation Dragon King in 1978 and Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation in 1991, which have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee Burma into Bangladesh[165].

The creation of the 1982 Citizenship Law further marginalised the Rohingya by excluding them from the country’s 135 “national races” entitled to Burmese citizenship, effectively rendering some 800,000 Rohingya in Burma stateless[166]. Later in 1992, a border security force called the Nay Sat Kut-kwey Ye or NaSaKa was established in North Rakhine, further imposing restrictions on the Rohingya such as on their right to marry and to travel freely[167].

Most recently in August 2017, a mass exodus occurred, with more than 700,000 Rohingya forced to flee from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh[168]. This happened after Rohingya militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police posts and killed 12 members of the security forces, inciting a security crackdown where the Myanmar military, backed by Buddhist mobs, burned their villages and killed civilians[169].  

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently more than 880,000 Rohingya refugees living at the Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region, which have grown to become the largest and most densely populated camps in the world[170]. Some Rohingya refugees have also sought refuge in other countries, with Malaysia hosting around 101,000 refugees, India hosting around 18,000 refugees and smaller numbers settling in Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand and other countries across the region[171]. Approximately 600,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar, with 142,000 internally displaced (IDP) and confined to closed IDP camps[172].

There continues to be a lack of durable solutions for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, especially as Myanmar has not shown signs of creating conditions for the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of the refugees. In light of that, in May 2021, nearly 20,000 Rohingya refugees have been relocated from the refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar to the controversial Bhasan Char Island. The move to this island was made before there were proper consultations on the island’s emergency preparedness, habitability, and safety, and has been particularly controversial considering refugees’ pleas to be returned to the mainland[173].

Internal Displacement in Mindanao, Philippines

Since 1969, active conflict in Mindanao between the Philippine government, Moro Muslim groups, and other armed groups has caused widespread displacement and infrastructure and shelter damage[174].

In 2014, a peace agreement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government successfully led to the formal establishment of an autonomous region called the Bangasmoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in 2019[175]. Despite this, violence related to the exclusion of armed groups from the peace process, continued across Mindanao throughout 2019.

Most recently, conflict reignited between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFR) and the Bangasmoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a fringe group inspired by the Islamic State which broke away from the MILF after the signing of the peace agreement[176].

On March 18, 2021, AFP fired mortars at alleged BIFF areas, leading to a gunfight between them around a market along a provincial highway[177]. The firefights and mortar shells led to the displacement of more than 66,000 people in the Philippines’ southern Maguinadanao province[178].

Despite this, the AFP seems to be more focused on its stated goal to end the country’s armed communist insurgency by 2022, despite heavy criticism that the AFP is using this campaign to harass, arrest and kill legal progressive activists and critics of President Rodrigo Duterte[179].

Vietnam Montagnard Refugees in Cambodia

Montagnard, or “highlanders”, is a term that has been used since the French Colonial period to describe some 30 hill tribes who live in the Vietnamese Central Highlands, each with their own language and distinctive cultural heritage[180] [181]. Since 1975, Montagnards have faced persecution from the Vietnamese government for supporting America in the Vietnam War and for practising forms of Christianity that Hanoi brand “evil way” religions [182] [183].

Although originally animists or spirit-believers, some Montagnards were converted to Christianity by Catholic missionaries during the French colonial period, and Protestant missionaries later became increasingly active among these highlands in the Southern Republic of Vietnam[184]. During the Vietnam War between 1954 and 1975, the Central Highlands were contested between US-backed anti-Communist Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and insurgents linked to the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and many Montagnards who converted to Christianity ended up allying with the US[185].

After the 1975 Communist victory in the Vietnam War, the Montagnards were targeted by the Communist Vietnam government as traitors and US spies[186]. They began persecuting the Montagnards, executing some of their leaders and limiting their cultural rights, education and employment opportunities[187]. This forced the Montagnard to flee from Vietnam, often to Cambodia and Thailand[188], though some managed to be resettled in North Carolina in the United States[189]. The rest of the Montagnard either live in what amounts to little more than house arrest in Phnom Penh, locked up in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre, or in limbo on the outskirts of Bangkok[190].

Most recently, those who fled to Cambodia in the wave that started in 2014 have been deported or returned “voluntarily” back to Vietnam[191]. As for Thailand, though they are less likely to be repatriated to Vietnam, they continue to live in precarious situations without legal documents and access to employment or education, leaving them at risk of abuse and arrests[192].  

Internal Displacement in Mawari, Philippines

The Battle of Mawari was a five-month-long firefight between the Philippine government security forces and militant groups affiliated with the Islamic State[193].

The conflict started on May 23, 2017, when members of the Maute Group (MG) ambushed a military vehicle that was reportedly on a mission to serve a warrant of arrest for Abu Sayaaf Group’s (ASG) leader, Isnilon Hapilon, who was believed to be hiding in that area[194].

Tensions intensified as MG multiplied their forces and reportedly occupied civilian structures like schools buildings and churches[195], with the Philippine government carrying out heavy bombing of the city to drive out the insurgents[196]. This led to the displacement of nearly 98% of Mawari’s population and the destruction of infrastructure and homes[197].

Though the siege ended on October 23, 2017, much of the population continues to be displaced even today[198]. According to the UNHCR in May 2020, more than 120,000 people currently live in transitory sites or home-based settings in Lanao del Sur. Despite the fact that these transitory shelters offer more protection than in Sarimanok Tent City[199], the journey to rebuild a better life continues[200].

Moving forward, the Philippine government has estimated rebuilding costs at $1.6 billion, with a goal of finishing by the first quarter of 2022.

Climate-Induced Migration

Southeast Asia is amongst the regions most affected by global rising temperatures but has also been seen to be one of the least prepared[201]. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, between 2008 – 2018, 54.5 million people in Southeast Asia were displaced by weather-related natural disaster[202]. The Global Climate Risk Index by environmental group Germanwatch also states that four Southeast Asian countries - Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand – were among the 10 countries in the world most affected by climate change in the past two decades[203].

The effects of climate change have been shown through rising sea levels, increasingly frequent and extreme weather patterns, and intensifying rainfall[204]. Massive human migration is expected from these consequences, especially with 77 percent of Southeast Asians living along the coast or in low lying river deltas[205].

In 2020, more than 500,000 people have been displaced due to weather-related disasters such as Typhoon Phanfone and Vongfong in the Philippines and Indonesia’s capital being inundated by region-wide flooding twice[206].

Resource Directory (Singapore)

Humanitarian Borderless360
Caritas Humanitarian Aid & Relief Initiatives, Singapore (CHARIS)
Free Food For All
Global Ehsan Relief
Habibi International
Jesuit Refugee Service - Singapore
Our Better World
Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation (RLAF)
Relief Singapore
Action for Women CH
Rohingya Eskul
Informal NTU United Nations Student Association Humanitarian Wing - Project Meraki
Project Xing Fu - SMU OCSP
Inactive Project Rohingya Sisu
Reyna Movement
Enterprise Air Amber
Artisan and Fox
Beadlebug Jewellery
Mad Roaster
Open Door Policy
Human Rights Maruah Singapore


This page was populated by volunteer researchers and writers in June 2021 as part of RAW 2021, an annual campaign held in conjunction with World Refugee Day on 20 June.  

Refugee Awareness Week (RAW) 2021 is organised by Advocates For Refugees - Singapore (AFR-SG), a volunteer-led ground up movement promoting the dignified and humane treatment of refugees and forcibly displaced persons.

For enquiries or comments, please email us at [1]

References

  1. “South East Asia,” UNHCR, accessed June 14, 2021, https://reporting.unhcr.org/node/39.
  2. Amnesty International, “Thailand: Between a rock and a hard place,” Reliefweb, October 2, 2017, https://reliefweb.int/report/thailand/thailand-between-rock-and-hard-place-enthzh.
  3. UNHCR, State of the World’s Refugees, (Geneva: UNHCR, 2000), 81-83.
  4. Itty Abraham, “The long read: Host communities and refugees in Southeast Asia: A workshop report,” The Asia Dialogue, December 19, 2019, https://theasiadialogue.com/2019/12/19/the-long-read-host-communities-and-refugees-in-southeast-asia-a-workshop-report/.
  5. UNHCR, State of the World’s Refugees, (Geneva: UNHCR, 2000), 83-86.
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  130. The UN Refugee Agency. “Fact Sheet: Thailand”. UNHCR, March 31, 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/th/wp-content/uploads/sites/91/2021/04/UNHCR-Thailand-Fact-Sheet_31-March-2021.pdf
  131. “History of Conflict and the Border”. BurmaLink. Accessed on June 15, 2021. https://www.burmalink.org/background/thailand-burma-border/history-of-conflict-and-the-border/
  132. Ibid.
  133. Ibid.
  134. Thongnoi Jitsiree and Sarkar Sonia. “India, Thailand face looming refugee crisis as Myanmar violence sparks fears of civil war. South China Morning Post, March 30, 2021. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3127648/india-thailand-brace-refugees-myanmar-juntas-bloody-crackdown
  135. “Thailand: Give sanctuary to Karen refugees fleeing Burmese army attacks”. Burma campaign UK, April 20, 2021. https://burmacampaign.org.uk/thailand-give-sanctuary-to-karen-refugees-fleeing-burmese-army-attacks/
  136. Auethavornpipat Ruji. “Thailand’s weak reaction to the Myanmar coup”. East Asia Forum, April 22, 2021. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2021/04/22/thailands-weak-reaction-to-the-myanmar-coup/
  137. Ibid.
  138. Yau Jennifer. “The Foreign-Born Hmong in the United States”. Migration Policy Institute, January 1, 2005. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/foreign-born-hmong-united-states#4
  139. “The Split Horn”. PBS. Accessed 17 June, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/splithorn/story1.html
  140. “Hmong Timeline” Minnesota Historical Society. Accessed 17 June, 2021. https://www.mnhs.org/hmong/hmong-timeline
  141. Ibid.
  142. Ibid.
  143. Ibid.
  144. Ibid.
  145. Yau Jennifer. “The Foreign-Born Hmong in the United States”. Migration Policy Institute, January 1, 2005. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/foreign-born-hmong-united-states#4
  146. “Timeline: Hmong” Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization (UNPO), December 30, 2020. https://unpo.org/article/19682
  147. Yau Jennifer. “The Foreign-Born Hmong in the United States”. Migration Policy Institute, January 1, 2005. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/foreign-born-hmong-united-states#4
  148. Communication report and search. OHCHR, August 28, 2020. https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25491
  149. Ibid.
  150. Ibid.
  151. “Hmong Timeline” Minnesota Historical Society. Accessed 17 June, 2021. https://www.mnhs.org/hmong/hmong-timeline
  152. Yau Jennifer. “The Foreign-Born Hmong in the United States”. Migration Policy Institute, January 1, 2005. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/foreign-born-hmong-united-states#4
  153. Ibid.
  154. Ibid.
  155. Ibid.
  156. “H.r.6034 - Hmong and Lao Refugee Deportation Prohibition Act of 2020”. United States Congress, February 28, 2020. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6034/text?r=3&s=1
  157. Borja Melissa. “The history of Hmong Americans explains why they might decide the election”. The Washington Post, October 29, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/10/29/history-hmong-americans-explains-why-they-might-decide-election/
  158. Feshir Riham. “Thousands of Hmong and Lao Americans face deportation under Trump proposal”. MPR News, February 7, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/10/29/history-hmong-americans-explains-why-they-might-decide-election/
  159. “H.r.6034 - Hmong and Lao Refugee Deportation Prohibition Act of 2020”. United States Congress, February 28, 2020. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6034/text?r=3&s=1
  160. World Vision. “Rohingya Refugee Crisis: Facts, FAQ, and how to help” Accessed 14 June, 2021. https://www.worldvision.org/refugees-news-stories/rohingya-refugees-bangladesh-facts
  161. Eleanor Albert and Lindsay Maizland. “The Rohingya Refugee Crisis”. Council on Foreign Relations, January 23, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis
  162. Ibid.
  163. Greg Constantine, “Bangladesh: The Plight of the Rohingya”, Pulitzer Centre, September 18, 2012. https://pulitzercenter.org/stories/bangladesh-plight-rohingya
  164. Eleanor Albert and Lindsay Maizland. “The Rohingya Refugee Crisis”. Council on Foreign Relations, January 23, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis
  165. Greg Constantine, “Bangladesh: The Plight of the Rohingya”, Pulitzer Centre, September 18, 2012. https://pulitzercenter.org/stories/bangladesh-plight-rohingya
  166. Ibid.
  167. Ibid.
  168. “Myanmar: What sparked latest violence in Rakhine?”. BBC News, September 19, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41082689
  169. Ibid.
  170. “Rohingya Refugee Crisis Explained”. USA for The UN Refugee Agency. Accessed 17 June, 2021. https://www.unrefugees.org/news/rohingya-refugee-crisis-explained/
  171. Ibid.
  172. Ibid.
  173. Meenakshi Ganguly. “Bangladesh’s Unplanned Relocation of Rohingya Refugees to Bhasan Char Island is Risky”. Human Rights Watch, June 7, 2021. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/07/bangladeshs-unplanned-relocation-rohingya-refugees-bhasan-char-island-risky
  174. “Philippines: Overview” Acaps, March 25, 2021. https://www.acaps.org/country/philippines/crisis/mindanao-conflict
  175. Aspinwall Nick. “Thousands of Families Are Being Displaced by Violent Clashes in Mindanao.” The Diplomat, April 2, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/04/thousands-of-families-are-being-displaced-by-violent-clashes-in-mindanao/
  176. Ibid.
  177. Ibid.
  178. Ibid.
  179. Ibid.
  180. Southerland Dan. “An Update on The Montagnards of Vietnam’s Central Highlands”. Radio Free Asia, October 23, 2018. https://www.rfa.org/english/commentaries/vietnam-montagnards-10232018155849.html
  181. “Persecuting “Evil Way” Religion”. Human Rights Watch, June 26, 2015. https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/06/26/persecuting-evil-way-religion/abuses-against-montagnards-vietnam
  182. Wright George. “Persecuted in Hanoi, locked up in Bangkok: the Montagnards, Vietnam’s forgotten Christians”. South China Morning Post, November 4, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/2171490/persecuted-hanoi-locked-bangkok-montagnards-vietnams-forgotten
  183. Tacet Athena. “Montagnards: Escaping Vietnam, Stateless in Thailand”. Aljazeera, March 24, 2017. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2017/3/24/montagnards-escaping-vietnam-stateless-in-thailand
  184. “Persecuting “Evil Way” Religion”. Human Rights Watch, June 26, 2015. https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/06/26/persecuting-evil-way-religion/abuses-against-montagnards-vietnam
  185. Ibid.
  186. “Montagnards”. The Center for New North Carolinians, August 2012. https://cnnc.uncg.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/montagnards.pdf
  187. Southerland Dan. “An Update on The Montagnards of Vietnam’s Central Highlands”. Radio Free Asia, October 23, 2018. https://www.rfa.org/english/commentaries/vietnam-montagnards-10232018155849.html
  188. Wright George. “Persecuted in Hanoi, locked up in Bangkok: the Montagnards, Vietnam’s forgotten Christians”. South China Morning Post, November 4, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/2171490/persecuted-hanoi-locked-bangkok-montagnards-vietnams-forgotten
  189. “Montagnards”. The Center for New North Carolinians, August 2012. https://cnnc.uncg.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/montagnards.pdf
  190. Wright George. “Persecuted in Hanoi, locked up in Bangkok: the Montagnards, Vietnam’s forgotten Christians”. South China Morning Post, November 4, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/w
  191. Ibid.
  192. Ibid.
  193. Westerman Ashley. “Over 120,000 People Remain Displaced 3 Years After Philippines’ Marawi Battle”. NPR, October 23, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/23/925316298/over-120-000-people-remain-displaced-3-years-after-philippines-marawi-battle
  194. The UN Refugee Agency. “Marawi Crisis” UNCHR. Accessed 15 June, 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/ph/marawi-crisis
  195. Ibid.
  196. Westerman Ashley. “Over 120,000 People Remain Displaced 3 Years After Philippines’ Marawi Battle”. NPR, October 23, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/23/925316298/over-120-000-people-remain-displaced-3-years-after-philippines-marawi-battle
  197. Ibid.
  198. Ibid.
  199. The UN Refugee Agency. “Marawi Update: The last of the evacuation centers”. UNHCR, February 27, 2020. https://www.unhcr.org/ph/17719-feb2020-enews-marawi.html
  200. UNHCR. “Marawi, Three Years Later”. Reliefweb, May 28, 2020. https://reliefweb.int/report/philippines/marawi-three-years-later
  201. “‘Climate refugees’: The expected climate change migration”. Global-is-Asian, October 14, 2020. https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/article/climate-refugees-the-expected-climate-change-migration
  202. Dennis Davis. “Southeast Asia’s Coming Climate Crisis”. Center for Strategic & International Studies, May 22, 2020. https://www.csis.org/blogs/new-perspectives-asia/southeast-asias-coming-climate-crisis
  203. “‘Climate refugees’: The expected climate change migration”. Global-is-Asian, October 14, 2020. https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/article/climate-refugees-the-expected-climate-change-migration
  204. Ibid.
  205. Dennis Davis. “Southeast Asia’s Coming Climate Crisis”. Center for Strategic & International Studies, May 22, 2020. https://www.csis.org/blogs/new-perspectives-asia/southeast-asias-coming-climate-crisis
  206. Ibid.