Humanitarian Efforts for refugees in South East Asia
By ANANT MISHRA [Former Youth Representative to United Nations]
New Delhi: During times of political instability, including instances of civil conflict and ethnic violence, civilians are often forced to abandon their homes and property and are mostly deprived of their ability to fend for themselves while they seek safety within their own country. These persons, referred to as internally displaced persons (IDPs), do not share the same protections as refugees who cross an international border and have a legal refugee status. Refugee status places an obligation to the international community to provide certain protection and recognition to persons, whereas for IDPs, no obligation is placed on the international community and protection of these persons depends on their respective government.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines the refugee as a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country". Given that there is no obligation on the international community to protect them, IDPs are generally more vulnerable to human rights abuses and their survival often depends on humanitarian assistance. IDPs rely on their own government to provide assistance, and often, a government is unwilling or unable to provide the necessary services: the government may not have the resources to address the issues plaguing IDPs or they may not have the political will to provide assistance, and in some situations, the government itself may be the cause of the displacement of IDPs. According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of 2013 there are an estimated 648,905 IDPs in Southeast Asia alone, and an estimated 27.5 million IDPs worldwide.
The UN Refugee Agency works to address not just the issues facing refugees and IDPs, but focuses on all persons of concern, which includes refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs, stateless persons, and others of concern. An asylum- seeker is considered to be a person claiming to be a refugee whose claim has not been definitively evaluated. National asylum systems are often in place to evaluate which asylum-seekers are qualified for refugee status and thus international protection. Often, an asylum-seeker may be sent back to their home countries if they are determined to not meet refugee status. A stateless person is someone who is not considered a national by any state, a definition that is reality for over 10 million people worldwide. Stateless people often are excluded from certain rights, such as the right to vote, and while these persons are often granted basic human rights in legislation, in practice they often are denied access to education, health services, or may have unequal access to employment opportunities. The UNHCR estimates that the total number of persons of concern in Southeast Asia is around 2.6 million persons. The UN Refugee Agency works to address the critical needs of persons of concerns in the sub region of Southeast Asia, which consists of Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Viet Nam. UNHCR’s mandate calls for the protection of these persons of concern and it works with many local and international partners to do so, especially when national governments are unable or unwilling to provide the critical services needed.
It is natural to assume that the nature of displacement changes as regional and sub-regional circumstances and levels of stability change. Some recent shifts to note include the increased number of civilians that are targeted during conflicts, which leads to increased numbers of IDPs. The setting in which these relocated persons settle is shifting away from well-defined camps to more urban and integrated settlements, which makes it more difficult to provide effective assistance directly to the populations of IDPs. Additionally, persons of concern are facing increased hostility from local populations and national governments, perhaps due to the strain these persons place on government resources and the national economy. Additionally, asylum procedures have become more lengthy and difficult to navigate in many areas over time. In Southeast Asia, most Member States lack legislation regulating the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees, placing the burden of conducting the refugee status determination of the UN Refugee Agency in the absence of national asylum systems. Many of these Member States consider refugees and asylum- seekers to be illegal migrants, causing serious protection risks for these persons, including detention and expulsion; and only one State in the sub region has signed the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. One possible contributing factor to the increasing hostility many governments and nationals show towards refugees and persons of concern is mixed migration.
Migratory movements are increasingly of a mixed nature, meaning people are moving mostly through similar methods, but for a multitude of reasons such as employment or education purposes, from rural to urban settings, as refugees and asylum-seekers, as victims of human trafficking, or as vulnerable persons displaced as a result of an intricate mixture of political, economic, social, and environmental factors. As one can imagine, when only a certain number of persons travelling across and between transnational borders are truly refugees or persons of concern, it can be incredibly difficult to determine who has a right to international protection. As such, maintaining a clear distinction between refugee protection imperatives and migration control strategies is a significant challenge for many Member States. As a result, many Member States in Southeast Asia and around the world tend to lump all migratory persons together and attempt to gain control over the irregular movement of persons by asserting various repressive measures. In Southeast Asia in particular, people smuggling and human trafficking networks continue to thrive, and in response, many Southeast Asian States implement strict border-control measures, detainment practices, and restrictive maritime and other policies. While these practices are in an effort to ensure national security, they certainly make protecting the rights of refugees a difficult task.
UNHCR and International Humanitarian Aid
In the Cold War era, the UNHCR worked mostly in asylum Member States, protecting refugees fleeing from communist states or repressive military governments. Since the post-Cold War era, UNHCR adapted to address the increasing number of persons fleeing civil or intra-state conflicts. This included facing more restrictive Member State asylum policies put in place in order to protect national security and economic interests. At the same time, due in part to increasing global media attention to humanitarian plights, governments have also called for increased involvement of the UN in terms of intra-State protection strategies and for increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of partnerships between humanitarian agencies and actors. In addition to internal reforms to address the changing international situation, UNHCR has also adapted to new international approaches to coordinating humanitarian aid.
The original mandate of the UNHCR to provide protection to refugees is still in effect; however, its role has continuously evolved to adjust to new challenges as they arise. The UNHCR has a long-standing history of providing and coordinating humanitarian aid to refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and other persons of concern since its very inception. Yet recent reform within the UN has changed the way that humanitarian assistance is provided by the international community as a whole. General Assembly (GA) resolution 46/182 established the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in December 1991, galvanizing the emergence of the current paradigm in the coordination of humanitarian assistance. The current approach in place since 2005 is known as the “Cluster System”. Clusters are partnerships that are established between organizations, national and local authorities, and civil society groups working to provide humanitarian assistance, providing a clear point of contact in order to promote accountable, adequate, and efficient humanitarian assistance efforts.
In order to ensure that UNHCR does not overreach its mandate, it primarily takes lead of clusters when displacement is caused by conflict versus natural disaster, therefore the leadership is often shared with other agencies. The UNHCR leads three global clusters: the Global Protection Cluster (GPC), the Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster (CCCM), and Emergency Shelter Cluster (ESC). In regards to the GPC, there has been intense debate over the scope of protection and the exact activities and interventions to attempt, but working together, specific agencies have agreed to coordinate 9 different focus areas of the protection response, including a focus area specific to IDP children and also for IDP women and girls. The CCCM Cluster’s primary objective is to provide protection and assistance to camp-based populations. Prior to inception, the CCCM Cluster had no existing network of experts with knowledge of camp management needs outside of basic water, sanitation, and health. The UNHCR has since worked with Cluster partners to bring additional agencies with the appropriate expertise, such as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who actively work to address problems specific to that Cluster, into the fold. The UNHCR also takes a leadership role in the ESC for conflict related IDPs in order to ensure effective and predictable emergency shelter services by increasing the number and capacity of professionals for rapid deployment, developing emergency strategies, guidelines, and assessment tools, and stockpiling necessary non-food items.
The UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) unit works towards the goal of examining and assessing UNHCR policies, programs, specific projects and best practices in order to increase efficiency. PDES also proactively promotes research on issues critical to the UN Refugee Agency’s work, allowing it to participate in exchanging information and ideas between humanitarian actors, policymakers and the greater research community. Recently, the PDES has been working to evaluate aid distributed to Southeast Asia and specifically aid given within Bangladesh where roughly 270,000 persons of concern are living due to conflicts from neighbouring Myanmar and Rohingya. With the high rates of population growth and poverty in Bangladesh it is of particular concern to UNHCR to provide humanitarian assistance effectively in order to not create a situation where natives of Bangladesh are unable to receive appropriate resources and flee their own country.
Political Instability in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia has a rich history, and the current geopolitical structure was shaped largely as a result European colonization starting in the sixteenth century and a period of Japanese colonization during World War II and the various subsequent nationalist movements and decolonization of the region from the 1940s through the 1980s. Modern Southeast Asia can be characterized by high economic growth by most countries and closer regional cooperation, an example of which is the 1967 establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
According to the Southeast Asia Research Programme (SEARP) at the Institute of Peace & conflict Studies (IPCS), “the primary security concerns confronting Southeast Asia have always been internal in nature”. Due to the wide political and social diversity, the region has been host to myriad internal conflicts, including armed insurgencies, ethnic violence, political uprisings, religious radicalism and terrorism, secessionism and civil conflict. The political systems of many Southeast Asian Member States are increasingly unstable due to regime change, protests, and civil unrest. Many examples of internal civil conflict in Southeast Asian States are due to armed conflict between ethnic nationalist groups and the Member State government in their struggle for autonomy. Many of the major nationalist and ethnic conflicts in Southeast Asia can be traced back to European colonization and decolonization. One example of intra-State ethnic violence is the conflict between ethnic groups and Myanmar’s central government. Myanmar’s government struggles to integrate various ethnic groups in the border regions, particularly in the northern areas, and the violent clashes that result have led to one of most politically unstable regions in Southeast Asia.
Although internal issues contribute significantly to political instability in the region, the role of inter-State conflict and territorial disputes cannot be ignored. These inter-State conflicts and territorial disputes sometimes flare up and truly hamper progress towards further regional development and integration. Recent violent armed clashes over the Preah Vihear Temple in the Thai-Cambodian border escalated into a military standoff. Neither the international community nor ASEAN mediated or attempted to assist in peacefully settling this particular dispute. Another example of inter-State conflict particularly of importance is that between Myanmar’s refugees and Thailand. The violent clashes between the military and ethnic groups of Myanmar have also greatly impacted Thailand. Thailand’s government announced that in response to the influx of refugees, they would close down nine border camps and repatriate over 140,000 Myanmar’s refugees in Thailand. The consequences of these actions include increased problems such as illegal trade, drugs and human-trafficking and certainly impact the relationship between Thailand and Myanmar, adding to increased tension and political instability in the region overall. With the failure of ASEAN to mitigate many of these disputes, the credibility of ASEAN as a regional organization to handle future disputes is in question, leading to further uncertainty about the political stability of the region.
UNHCR Operations and Challenges in Southeast Asia
The UNHCR recognizes persons of concern in 12 of the recognized Member States of Southeast Asia, totalling 1,799,325 identified individuals as of mid-2013 the situation in Southeast Asia is a significant focus by the committee. Myanmar is a majority of this focus as 47 percent of the persons of concern are identified as Myanmarese. In 2013 Southeast Asian persons of concern required USD 170 million in aid and support. Bangladesh and Myanmar consisted of 57 percent of this need. Per the annual Global report on the UNHCR’s work in Southeast Asia, the committee was only able to provide USD 86.7 million in expenditure and aid. It is nearly impossible for the committee to provide the proper resources to these Member States in support of these increasing population of refugees and IDPs. UNCHR must find ways to efficiently provide resources and aid to persons of concern and need in order to avoid further stress, contention, potentially conflict in this hostile region.
UNHCR provides protection and humanitarian assistance to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Outside of these camps, UNHCR works towards registering asylum-seekers and providing protection to these persons as needed. Particular attention has been placed on the Rohingya in the Rakhine State, a stateless group of persons that continue to experience persecution, discrimination and exploitation in Myanmar. The rising number of urban refugees presents a significant challenge throughout the region, but particularly in Bangladesh. In Cambodia, UNHCR provides support to the Government’s Refugee Office by financial means and with technical advice, placing emphasis on building the Government’s capacity to decide on asylum procedures, provide social and legal support to persons of concern, and to better integrate refugees locally. UNHCR has worked to increase its registration and refugee status determination (RSD) capacity particularly in Indonesia due the increase in asylum-seekers. The committee also works to increase the efficiency of resettlement for legally recognized refugees.
Addressing the detention of asylum-seekers and dealing with restrictive border and maritime policies in place throughout the sub region are still major challenges facing the UN Refugee Agency. The Philippines is one of the Member States in the sub region that has acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. UNHCR has assisted the Philippines in developing its asylum system and by advocating for the recently adopted procedures for refugee status and statelessness determination. Additionally, UNHCR co-leads the protection cluster for those displaced by internal conflict in the Philippines. UNHCR also works in coordination with ASEAN bodies and government agencies in Viet Nam to reduce statelessness by advocating for naturalization and re-granting of lost nationality. UNHCR has no operational presence in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic or Timor-Leste, and very little staff in Singapore; however, the situations of refugees, asylum-seekers and other persons of concern are monitored and assistance is provided from UNHCR’s Thailand regional operation.
Outside of the obvious financial gaps between aid required to support the almost 2 million persons of concern and the actual aid the UNHCR was able to distribute, there are other problems that hinder optimal distribution of aid to the Southeast Asian sub-region. Only one Member State in the region is party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and as of 2013 only three Member States are party to the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees. This lack of participation in and commitment to these influential documents of the United Nations makes it difficult for the UNHCR to partner with the governments of Member States to develop solid frameworks and policies to provide proper services and aid to persons of concern.
As an example, the conflict and persecution of the stateless Rohingya in Myanmar has led to an increase in human trafficking and increased violence against women and children as many flee Myanmar via unsafe boats and travel routes. Myanmar makes it nearly impossible for the Rohingya to access aid and a lack of cooperation with UNHCR makes it further difficult to assist. The UNHCR is attempting to coordinate with the ASEAN Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) along with neighbouring Member States receiving these refugees to strategize in order to provide aid and services to the Rohingya and further recognize a need for increased attention to irregular migration methods, including migration by sea.
Many Member States in the sub region do not fully participate with the UNCHR to adapt their legal frameworks in such a way to properly provide aid to the necessary individuals. Some Member States actually criminalize refugee status, considering them to be illegal migrants. This leads to a noted increase in detention, deportation, refoulement, and other personal risks to refugees and asylum seekers within these Member States, an increasing trend of concern in recent years. This is in direct opposition to UNHCR’s mission and goals, and causes an increasing number of persons of concern to flee out of camps and into highly populated urban settings, often referred to as urban ‘slums’. A lack of documentation and an increasing number of identifiable persons in these slums creates an obstacle for the UNCHR to provide basic medical, educational, and other standard services. These undocumented individuals are also unable to properly integrate into a local labour force compounding their already dire need for basic human services. The influx of these individuals makes it increasingly difficult to identify and provide services and aid and simultaneously adds strain on the Member State’s resources. There is a duty and need by the committee to evaluate the situation and programs provided to the Southeast Asian region and properly identify ways to overcome these increasingly dangerous obstacles for the growing population of persons of concern.
The role of UNHCR in Southeast Asia is mainly a reactive one. While UNHCR’s mandate does not prepare it to directly address or mitigate the internal and external factors and conflicts leading to the political instability in the region, the mandate does place a large responsibility on UNHCR to protect all persons of concern that are victims of the political instability in the region.
UNHCR has many operations in place, but still faces some key challenges particular to the region that need to be overcome in order for UNHCR to effectively carry out its mandate. Most States in the sub region lack a legislative framework for determining refugee status and statelessness and the complex mixed-migration patterns in Southeast Asia make it even more difficult to determine refugee status and allocate humanitarian resources accordingly.
The continued use of immigration detention facilities in some States to hold persons of concern means that refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless men, women, and children are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The increasing urbanization of refugees has made it more difficult for UNHCR to identify and provide assistance to those in urban settings. Additionally, many refugees, stateless persons, and asylum-seekers in urban settings are unable to earn a living wage or gain equal access to social services such as education and healthcare.