Refugees in Southeast Asia: Avenues for Action in ASEAN and Australia

Beneath the glitzy, modern towers of central Jakarta, with the sun reflecting its heat upon the ground, a handful of tents are perched on the side of the road, right next to the UNHCR building in Kebon Sirih. These tents however are not temporary; these have been the permanent homes for many refugees stranded in Jakarta.

Mahmood is a 40-year-old Afghani refugee who have resided in Indonesia for over 5 years. Out of fear of being persecuted, he ran away from his home, leaving his wife and 8 kids, searching for a safe place to call home. He paid people smugglers $8000USD  to get him out of Afghanistan. His journey so far has been difficult to say the least, and is still far from over. In 2013 he left Afghanistan in the hopes of coming to Australia. He first went to India for 12 days, then Malaysia for 4 days, and then he took a boat to Medan, and then to Jakarta. Here, he registered his name to UNHCR, before making his way to Australia.

“In January 2014, I came to Australia by boat. Then 12 days with the immigration, border protection of Australia in the big boat. After that they send me back to Jakarta, in the orange boat. My boat was demolished,” he said.

Australia has a policy of returning boats carrying refugees before it reaches its shore. In the process, boats carrying refugees are intercepted by Australia’s border force before entering Australia’s water, and refugees are ultimately transferred into a small and cramped orange boats to be sent back to Java.  He was officially deemed a refugee by UNHCR 20 months after he first registered.

“I’m hopeless now,” he said when asked of what hopes he has.

Refugees in Southeast Asia

Data from UNHCR indicated the number of refugees in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, from November 2018.[1][/caption]


Mahmood is just one case in many of refugees who are stuck in transit countries, in danger of returning back to their homes yet unable to go to their intended destinations. In Southeast Asia alone, countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have been the host of many refugees from Somalia, to Rohingya to Afghanistan among others, many of whom embarked on their journey of a better life, in hopes of reaching and resettling in Australia.

According to the UNHCR, in Southeast Asia alone, there are a total of 2.7 million people of concern, including those who are stateless and those who are internally displaced.[1] However, this number is likely to not encapsulate the total number of people of concern as not all people who require international protection from persecution are registered with UNHCR.

In ASEAN, refugees are living in dire conditions in their host countries. In Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, refugees are held either held for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with over-crowding, or living on the streets in a tent. Both living conditions are with inadequate hygiene and lack of access to adequate medical treatment.[2] The adverse impact of immigration detention on the physical and mental wellbeing of refugees is well documented – mental illness, poor physical health and susceptibility to illness, developmental impairment, self-harm, exposure to violence and even death are all sadly predictable outcome.[3] Save the Children research also suggests that asylum seekers will often make choices, some of them which adversely impact on the access of their children to education, healthcare, and recreation, in order to minimise the risk of being detected by authorities.

The biggest problem however is that refugees in these countries ultimately have no rights. As neither Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia have signed or ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugee Rights, refugees  therefore have no rights within the country , nor do they have any rights to citizenship. They are not only living in poor conditions, but unable to receive education or proper health care, unable to work and risk being deported due to their legal status as being “illegal aliens.” 

All the items that the refugees possesses


ASEAN Secretariat and AICHR remains ineffective

Between ASEAN states itself, victims of religious or political violence seeking refuge in neighbouring countries are not fully protected according to the international standard on refugee protection as legal protection framework are hardly existent or severely insufficient. As a result, undocumented migrants such as refugees are vulnerable to exploitation, with no stable means of income, no access to education or timely health care, and many are prone to involuntary repatriation.[4] This issue should be paramount for ASEAN, and should be seen as a marked social failure of the ASEAN economic community. Thousands of people are searching for safety and livelihood throughout this emergent community, but have been left vulnerable to state coercion and various forms of exploitation, with little to no access to basic necessities.[5] Refugees staying in ASEAN countries remains ad hoc and temporary, and are offered no prospect for permanent settlement and integration.

While ASEAN has a number of regional frameworks, including those that protects the rights of those of forced migrants, the implementation of the policies and the laws on migration itself are left to the will of national governments. As a result, these frameworks hardly protect the rights of refugees themselves, as many countries do not comply with international human rights standards. This can be exemplified by the fact that two ASEAN countries, namely Cambodia and Philippines are signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, yet other member countries are not.[6] Overall, ASEAN is more concerned with upholding its principles on the respect of state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, rather than upholding international standards for human rights itself. While consultation, consensus and non-confrontation are applied for the cases of refugees, they have yet to manifest to significant changes in policies within individual countries of member states.

AICHR or the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights is intended to assist ASEAN and its state in conforming to the ‘purpose and principles of the ASEAN charter relating to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.’[7] It deals with both all the categories of human rights, including hypothetically of that of non-citizens and refugees. It also promotes and protect of human rights of all groups within the people of ASEAN. AICHR however remains somewhat of a paper tiger,  as it does not have any capacity to enforce their decisions upon member states.[8] The issue of statelessness has already found its way on the AICHR’s agenda. The activities that are organised by AICHR remains on awareness raising, on sensitisation of the issues and more concrete actions being taken by AICHR.[9] According to article 16 of AHRD recognises the ‘right to seek and receive asylum in another state,’ the same provisions make it clear that asylum is to be granted ‘in accordance with the laws of such state and applicable international agreements.[10] AHRD also recognises the right of nationality. However, article 34 of AHRD says very clearly that the member states ‘may determine the extent to which they can guarantee the economic and social rights found in this declaration to non-nationals, with due regard to human rights,the organisation and resources of their respective national economies.’[11]

That being said, several member states recognise the need to act on the issue of refugees. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia realise that regional cooperation is necessary to tackle the root problem that causes displacement in the first place. It was during this time that ASEAN was suggested to be the appropriate place to discuss the issue and to come up with an agenda to assist countries of origin and to limit the number of people needing to leave the country. [12] However, in these three countries, refugees remains treated by the national legal framework as ‘illegal aliens’ and are victim of arrest, detention and repatriation. It is also important to note that these countries have extremely porous borders which permits significant levels of irregular immigration. [13]


One refugee showed the pieces of styrofoam that he uses as bedding


ASEAN as an institution can take more responsibility to help refugees

AICHR is rightly positioned to leverage its mandate to develop a regional strategy to encourage member states to ratify the Refugee Convention. A cooperation plan of action for the protection of refugees should be developed, and commitment to guarantee the right to seek asylum should be strengthened.[17] Because AICHR holds meetings every year, it should establish a permanent agenda on forced migration, which should be mainstreamed as a program and developed into a plan within a timeframe. The protection mandate within AICHR’s Terms of Reference should also be operationalised and strengthened, so AICHR to address key human rights issues within the region.[18]

There is also a need to acknowledge and address the push factors behind forced migration and why refugees are seeking to leave their home countries and seek international protection. In the case of ASEAN, there is a need to address the case of the persecution of Rohingya people by the government of Myanmar.[19] This remains to be difficult due to the charter of non-interference, therefore ASEAN countries are less likely to meddle in the internal issues of Myanmar. But if ASEAN member countries wants to limit the number of refugees they would have to host in their countries, dealing with the root cause of the problem is the main way. Member states must develop a refugee policy that includes guidance for actions to be taken when a member states’ internal issue cause people to flee to neighbouring states.[20] Further, the expansion of non-ASEAN refugees in the region suggest that it is no longer an issue that is tackled exclusively within the region. ASEAN and AICHR should explore ways to establish strategic cooperation and partnership with different bodies and frameworks from various different regions. This should include collaboration with civil society organisations, which have direct access to information and refugees themselves.


Does Australia bear responsibility?

Refugees who are transiting within Southeast Asia are primarily intending to reside in Australia. This is because of Australia’s multicultural society, which historically have tended to be open to people seeking opportunities. Australia is also rightly positioned as a country that is capable of supporting refugees, due to its good work opportunities, as well as medical treatments available. Australia is also one of the only countries in the region, bar Cambodia and Philippines that, that have signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Australia’s policy however has categorized and procedurally handle boat arrivals as ‘security threats,’ rather than a humanitarian issue. The widely publicized poor handling of refugees by Australia, as well as the closing of sea water routes, have meant that refugees are now stuck in Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand, unable to return home due to the risk to their safety, yet unable to follow their journey to Australia in order to get a better life. Those who do seek refuge to Australia via waters will risk having their boats turned, like the case of Mahmood. Previously, Australia had a policy in placing refugees to offshore detention in Manus Island in Papua New-Guinea, or in Nauru. In the region, Australia is the most equipped to allow refugee to seek a new life. With a relatively strong economy and a multi-cultural society, Australia can ensure that refugees can have a better life.

It is true however, that Australia cannot simply receive all refugees attempting to flee their homes, so what Australia can do is to help the journey of refugees. Australia can help contribute to UNHCR stationed in Southeast Asia in order to help accommodate refugees accordingly. It is also important for Australia to investigate what the root cause of people fleeing their homes are, and develop strong policy accordingly to ensure that people’s safety in other countries are not in danger. Working with relevant frameworks, such as convention and treaty, are possible. Australia can also work together with ASEAN and ASEAN nations to help legislate laws to protect refugees. Australia is in the position where it can carry out meaningful dialogue with it’s ASEAN neighbours, whilst providing training centred around refugee rights. The intention of such is to develop a comprehensive plan, and subsequently policy, on how to deal with the problem that intersects the region.

But what is important is that Australia must lead by example. Australia is a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, and by virtue it must protect those who are deemed to be refugees in their plight to seek a better life. Australia’s policies today are far from that, and instead, are risking the physical and mental health of refugees. Australia’s first priority is to develop legislature that follows the promises made in the UN Refugee Convention.

Youths can take the lead too!


Youths attending UN youth forum at the United Nations, advocating for the implementation of SDG goals.



While the problem is indeed a large one, the role of youth, both in Australia and ASEAN countries, is important.

Youths have the ability and responsibility to educate themselves, and subsequently others, of the plight of refugees. This begins with understanding why mass migration happens, understanding the history and politics of where conflict is happening and the impact it has. Through understanding the experiences of refugees, it is hoped that more will feel sympathetic to the journey that refugees must take.

Youths can also rally to help refugees within their local area, city, or nation. Refugees are in need of basic necessities, including ready to eat meals, clothing, hygiene products, and bedding. Items like this need not to be purchased new; Organizing a donation drive amongst friends and family of necessary items is extremely beneficial.  Such processes would also help educate others of the hardships that refugees face. To know the location of refugee camps, liaise with local NGOs which works on the issue of refugees. Such NGOs are useful in knowing specifically what is needed.

It is also important to know refugees on a personal basis. It is easy to view the issue of refugees in numbers, but it is easy to forget that those figures  signify lives. Like any human, connection is important and having a chat with them will make refugees feel more welcomed. This way, you would also know of other ways to help them. Refugees have interesting backgrounds and stories to tell, and having such avenue will help release some stress.

Lastly, but most importantly, it is important to make your view be known to your government. Writing letters to your government, articles to blogs or news websites, or letting your dissent be known on social media is an important step. The government needs to know of the public’s anger and disappointment of the treatment of refugees. Through this process, it is hoped that the government will feel more pressured to reassess their refugee policy, and pressure government involved in conflict and oppression of their people to cease, in order to stop people for fleeing.

[1] Refugees, U. (2019). South-East Asia Fact Sheet. [online] UNHCR. Available at:

[2]Save the Children and APPRN, Unlocking Childhood: Current Immigration Detention Practices and Alternatives for Child Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Asia and the Pacific, May 2017, pg 2

[3] Ibid.

[4]  ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ ASEAN people’s forum 2017 pg. 7

[5]  Pei Palmgren, T. (2019). Adrift in ASEAN: Tackling Southeast Asia’s Migration Challenge. [online] The Diplomat. Available at: 

[6] Srirapha Petcharamesree (2016) ‘ASEAN and its approach to migration issues, pg. 173

[7] Sriprapha Petcharamesree (2016) ‘ASEAN and its approach to migration issues pg. 184

[8] ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ ASEAN people’s forum 2017 pg. 5

[9] Sriprapha Petcharamesree (2016) ‘ASEAN and its approach to migration issues pg. 184

[10] Ibid pg. 185

[11] Ibid pg. 185

[12] Mathew, Penelope & Harley, Tristan. (2014). ‘Refugee Protection and Regional Cooperation in Southeast Asia pg. 5

[13] Save the Children and APPRN, Unlocking Childhood, pg.6

[14] Mathew, Penelope & Harley, Tristan. (2014). ‘Refugee Protection and Regional Cooperation in Southeast Asia, pg.2

[15] Pei Palmgren, T. (2019). Adrift in ASEAN

[16] ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ ASEAN people’s forum 2017 pg. 13

[17]ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ ASEAN people’s forum 2017 pg. 14

[18] Ibid, pg.5

[19] Pocock, N., et al, Reflections on migrant and refugee health in Malaysia and the ASEAN region, pg. 2

[20] Richa Shivakoti (Oct 2017) ‘ASEAN’s Role in the Rohingya Refugee Crisis’, pg. 7


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