How civil society can improve refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific

Most Asia-Pacific governments are more focused on preventing irregular movement of asylum seekers and refugees than addressing the underlying causes of such movement. UNHCR/S.H. Omi

At the end of 2014, the Asia-Pacific region hosted around 117,000 asylum seekers and 3.8 million refugees. This is 18.6% of the worldwide total. Pakistan, with 38% of the Asia-Pacific population of asylum seekers and refugees, and Iran, with 25%, were the top two host countries in the region.

Australia, however, hosted just 1% of the Asia-Pacific total.

Less than half of the countries in the Asia-Pacific are parties to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. Fewer still have a domestic legal framework for determining asylum seekers’ protection claims or protecting refugees.

The problem of protection

Humanitarian considerations result in most countries in the Asia-Pacific tolerating the unauthorised presence of asylum seekers and refugees within their borders most of the time.

But such individuals lead a precarious existence. Without legal status in their host country, they live in fear of being detained and/or returned to the dangers of their home country. Most do not have adequate access to the necessities of life. Some suffer mistreatment at the hands of local people.

Worst of all, they see no end in sight to their predicament. Repatriation is impossible; integration into the community of their host country is not an available option; and the prospects of third country resettlement are remote.

Unsurprisingly, some refugees and asylum seekers move on from their initial country of asylum in the hope that adequate protection can be found elsewhere. Some keep moving as their hopes are dashed in one country after another.

Most governments in the region, including Australia’s, are more focused on preventing irregular movement of asylum seekers and refugees into their territory than on addressing the underlying causes of such movement. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does its best to provide protection to those falling within its mandate, but the total funds it has available fall far short of its needs-based budget for the region.

In any event, the UNHCR cannot protect asylum seekers and refugees from host-country governments or provide them with durable solutions. All it can do is advocate on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees with governments, though it has not much chance of prevailing in the face of domestic political considerations.

Civil society provides a way forward

But there is hope, even if governments won’t protect and the UNHCR can’t protect. In many regional countries civil society organisations are attempting to fill the protection gap through service provision, advocacy, or both.

Unlike the UNHCR, which may be perceived as trying to impose a foreign agenda on a country against its national interest, these civil society organisations have local legitimacy because they act and speak for local constituencies. Their pro-refugee views may not currently be held by a majority in their society but they are better placed than outsiders to achieve better protection – perhaps even local integration – for refugees over time.

What they could do with, however, is support.

In 2008, 70 of these organisations came together to create the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN). APRRN now has 244 individual and organisational members across 26 countries, including Australia.

With the assistance of a small secretariat based in Bangkok, APRRN members work to advance the rights of refugees in the Asia-Pacific through networking and information-sharing, mutual capacity-building and joint advocacy. By working together, APRRN members have achieved more than they could have separately. But there is still a long way to go.

Australia’s deterrence-based approach to stopping irregular movement has an enormous human as well as monetary cost. The monetary cost of deterrence is many times greater than it would cost to protect refugees in the places in which they presently live.

If the Australian government redirected the money it is prepared to spend on deterrence to the UNHCR and the civil society organisations promoting refugee rights in the region, it might be able not only to save refugee lives – its stated objective – but also ensure that refugees had lives worth living.


La Trobe University is hosting a public forum on September 1 on refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific featuring lawyers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.