CIVICUS speaks to Evan Jones of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) about the challenges that refugees face in Asia and civil society’s work to help realise refugee rights.
Can you tell us about your network and what it does?
APRRN is a civil society network with around 400 members across Asia and the Pacific, stretching from Iran to South Korea and Taiwan and down to New Zealand. We’ve existed for 10 years and our main aim is to advance refugee rights in Asia and the Pacific. We push for legislative and policy change in the region to help refugees have sustainable lives and access to the same rights as everyone else. Our key purpose is advocacy, and underneath this there are three pillars of work: first, capacity strengthening for our members, through training and courses in areas such as refugee law, advocacy, working with the media and gender; second, information sharing across borders about best practices, contacts, resources, skills and communication ideas: if there’s a good development that’s happened in one country, we’ll try to connect civil society organisations (CSOs) in other countries to share lessons learned and possible ideas to adapt; and third, advocacy on the national, regional and international levels.
In recent years we’ve been working on building refugee self-representation and putting refugee voices front and centre of everything we do. A refugee, someone with lived experience, is the chair of our entire network and the chairs or deputy chairs of many of our working groups are either still in refugee situations or have been earlier in their lives. Throughout our advocacy, we make sure that refugees are present in everything we do.
What are the key current movements of people in the region, and what are the main reasons that drive people to become refugees?
We have movements of refugees both from outside the region into the region, and also within the region. Specific refugee populations vary from country to country and also in size. In Malaysia, for example, there are about 180,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, a number of whom have arrived after the 2017 exodus. Others have been there for decades, eking out an existence, often on the fringes of society. In Thailand, there are a significant number of Pakistani refugees from religious minorities, along with groups of Hazaras from Afghanistan, Uighurs from China and Montagnards from Vietnam. In South Korea, there are refugees from Yemen. There are many populations in almost every country across the region.
There are a number of reasons why people are forced to flee their homes, ending up as refugees in Asia. One is religious persecution. This has been clearly evident with the decades-long persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, alongside persecution of Christian minorities such as the Chin. The Ahmadi Christian minority of Pakistan are another example of a population that has been subject to ongoing religious persecution.
Aside from refugees fleeing religious persecution, many individuals are also fleeing persecution due to their race, nationality, or membership of a particular social group. Because often ethnic minorities are targeted, we see a sizable amount of people fleeing countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, China and Pakistan. Other groups include those fleeing generalised violence and civil war, for example in Syria and Yemen, LGBTQI community members fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual identity and individuals fleeing despotic regimes such as North Korea’s.
Refugees often find themselves in Asia for a number of reasons. For some, capital cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were the only places they could afford to travel to at short notice and with relatively easy visa requirements. For example, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, people from most countries can get a visa on arrival. Palestinians, Somalis and Yemenis can still get a visa on arrival in Malaysia, one of only a handful of countries around the world where they can do so. Many people came to these hubs thinking they would only be transit points, intending to claim asylum in Australia, Canada, or elsewhere, and then got stuck in these countries because they weren’t able to travel further.
What are the key challenges refugees face?
There are generally no local protections. There are usually no safeguards from detention, no capacity to work and no access to education and healthcare. Refugees struggle to attain almost all their human rights. This situation is common in most countries in both South and South East Asia.
One of the biggest challenges, in Asia as well as globally, is the lack of durable solutions for refugees. Many have been and are expected to be here for years or even decades. With record numbers of refugees, no longer is it the norm nor can it be expected that refugees will be resettled in months or even years. Now, many have no real prospects of resettlement, with the number of resettlement spots globally having dropped so significantly. Under one per cent of all refugees in the world will ever get resettled, and the situation is even worse in Asia.
Particularly in South East Asia, detention is a key concern and a continued focus of our advocacy. Instead of detention being used as an option of last resort it is quite often the norm. In Thailand for example, UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) cardholders are subject to arrest and detention if they are unable to produce a valid passport or visa. The detention centre is, in essence, a jail, where refugees are often held indefinitely until they either return home – which is not really a possibility – or get resettled, which is also unlikely for many people.
Access to a legal right to stay is extremely difficult for people with a passport from refugee-producing countries. It’s hard to maintain or extend a visa in many countries around the region. If you’re from Afghanistan, Somalia, or Sudan, for example, often one of the restrictions to maintain a visa is that you’re expected to go home and then come back, which obviously isn’t an option for refugees. In some countries like India, we are seeing a worrying rise in racism and xenophobia, where refugees from some Muslim countries are being requested to ‘return immediately’ and told that they ‘are no longer welcome’.
A further worrying trend that we are seeing is the use of extradition. States both within and outside the region are using extradition as a tool to have refugees forcibly return to countries from which they’ve fled. Sadly, we are quite often seeing states where refugees have sought protection going ahead with these extraditions. In essence, we see them buckling to the weight or political interests of neighbouring governments.
One such example that made world headlines was the case of Hakeem al-Araibi. Hakeem is a Bahraini refugee who lives in Australia and was held in a Thai prison for three months, from November 2018 to February 2019, pending extradition back to Bahrain, after going to Thailand on his honeymoon. There was also the case of Sam Sokha, the Cambodian political activist, who was famous for throwing her shoe at a billboard of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, an act that was filmed and widely shared on the internet. She was arrested in Thailand in January 2018 and held in the immigration detention centre even though she had a UNHCR card recognising her as a refugee. The Thai government allowed an extradition request to be processed and sent her back to Cambodia, where she’s currently serving a prison sentence. Another case is Praphan Pipithnampron, an activist from Thailand who fled to Malaysia, claimed refugee status and was then extradited back to Thailand with the agreement of the Malaysian government. These examples show a clear and fundamental breach of the principles of refugee protection. Even with UNHCR status, the lack of legal protection leaves refugees in precarious situations across the region.
Access to work is another major challenge. There are generally no special provisions for refugees to access work unless they happen to have come on a business visa with work rights and have maintained their visa. The lack of labour rights for refugees impacts on all other rights, including their ability to obtain food and shelter, access education and pay for healthcare. Interestingly, there have been a few small positive steps towards addressing this. A few years ago, the Malaysian government instigated a pilot project on work rights for Rohingya refugees, for a very limited number of 300 people. Whilst the initiative was a failure, the fact that the government even initiated such a program indicated a notable shift towards recognition of work rights. It shows that work rights are now on the agenda.
Access to education differs country by country, but broadly speaking, it’s very problematic across the region. In Malaysia, there’s no capacity for refugees to access primary education. Malaysia has a reservation against the Convention on the Rights of the Child that means refugee children aren’t able to access state schooling. In Thailand, despite there being a progressive ‘education for all’ policy, practically it’s still quite difficult for refugee children to be able to attend school. This is because of the costs, the requirement to have basic Thai language skills and concerns about xenophobia and racism. Schools may not want to receive children who don’t have the relevant immigration papers or who look or sound too different.
Across the region more broadly, there is also a hidden but major concern regarding a lack of access to tertiary education. From the perspective of states, and even many CSOs and service providers, tertiary education is seen as something that far surpasses basic needs. However, without this access, there remains a large refugee population who are simply left to linger in a state of under-productivity. They are not only unable to work, but they also cannot improve the skills and expertise that would help them grow personally and professionally if they were resettled or even decided to return home. This is starting to change just a little, and there are some positives here. For example, Japan has opened up 20 scholarship spaces for Syrian refugees, and some universities in Malaysia have also begun to offer dedicated spaces and scholarships.
Healthcare is also problematic. Often refugees have to pay upfront for healthcare before they can be reimbursed by CSOs or the UNHCR. Refugees often fear that if they go to hospitals when they lack the correct documentation they may even be referred to immigration authorities.
What are the challenges refugees face from anti-rights groups and majority populations?
There were three pronounced examples over the past year of majority religious groups mobilising against minorities in the region. In South Korea in June 2018, 500 Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island. Almost immediately there was a huge outcry from the public, church groups – particularly conservative Christian groups – and the media. This fanned what was partly an anti-refugee sentiment but was more strongly an anti-Muslim sentiment that swept through the country and became conflated with refugee issues. It connected to the anti-migrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric that was coming out of Europe, and showed how these two have become intertwined. Within weeks of the story hitting the headlines a petition with more than a million signatures was sent to the president’s office requesting that South Korea pull out of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Thankfully the government didn’t go down this track but there have been high-level talks about how potentially South Korea could modify its domestic legislation for refugees and wind back some of its protection for refugees.
In Sri Lanka, the 2019 Easter Bombings in Colombo gave rise to an immediate anti-Muslim public sentiment, which affected the refugee population in Sri Lanka, which is significantly an Afghan and Ahmadi Pakistani population. Several hundred fled from Colombo to the city of Negombo and went into hiding. Some stayed in a police station for several weeks of their own volition for protection and others were supported by CSOs. UNHCR was so concerned it sent additional staff to try to expedite cases and look at emergency resettlement out of Sri Lanka because of the fear of retribution and abuses against Muslim refugees.
The third example was what we saw in Myanmar with the Rohingya. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment have permeated through Myanmar society. The Rohingya are denied citizenship and viewed as associated with terrorism. This resulted in what many are calling a genocide.
Given these challenges, how is civil society in the region trying to respond, and what have the successes and challenges been?
Negative stories dominate the discourse, and we try to counter this by placing refugees’ voices front and centre. This is something that is being supported quite strongly within the region, from Australia and New Zealand, but also now from within South East Asia. Civil society groups are realising that it is refugee voices that are the most impactful, and civil society is trying to amplify these voices to show the agency and contribution of refugees. In Malaysia, for example, there is now a completely self-organised group, the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, where Afghani, Eritrean, Rohingya, Somali and Sri Lankan refugees are all coming together by themselves, putting forward their messages. They are offering training and they have learning centres. This is a really positive development. CSOs are trying to facilitate and support these developments.
There’s also awareness-raising with the public, and with local host communities, the media and government. The media are stakeholders with potential for huge good but also huge harm, depending on their messaging. Many CSOs are trying to engage better with the media, including through media training. Misinformation is a major issue in some countries, such as in Myanmar, where both before and after the upsurge in violence there was a lot of anti-Rohingya messaging. However, in other countries, such as Thailand, refugee stories are rarely covered by local media.
Over the past few years, there has also been a definite shift towards building connections with parliamentarians across the region. There has been a lot of work in trying to find champions within governments and trying to get them to work for refugees within governments and across borders. One organisation we work with quite closely that has done excellent work on several issues, including refugees, is ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights. They have a network of members of parliament in each country where they share information and strategies and use their status as elected officeholders to try to support rights.
As well as positive shifts on labour rights and education in Malaysia, the government there is also looking at possible ratification of the Refugee Convention. Another positive move in Malaysia which shouldn’t be underestimated is that the government is speaking more openly about the issue, and in many cases speaking the right language. Five years ago you would not have seen the Malaysian government speaking out bilaterally or within ASEAN about the atrocities in Myanmar. Now the government is quite strong in calling attention to the situation in Myanmar and has also spoken out about other vulnerable populations, such as the Uighurs in China. They seem to be heading in the right direction.
Another positive development has come in Thailand. Despite the fact that there is still immigration detention, in January 2019 the Thai government signed a memorandum of understanding to release mothers and children from the immigration detention centre to live in the community. This might seem a small win, but it was a practice that went on for so long. It was a change largely driven by civil society advocacy.
Elsewhere there are regressions, as with the anti-refugee sentiment in South Korea. There are still a million-plus Rohingya sitting in camps in Bangladesh and there’s the growing prominence of the Uighur detention camps in China. There have been other headline stories this year, such as that of Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi Arabian woman who was fleeing from Kuwait to Australia and was stuck in a hotel within Bangkok airport. So even when we see governments in the region appearing to move in the right direction, all of a sudden they do something that takes them back again, such as threatening to return refugees for the sake of maintaining diplomatic relations. But we can have some cautious optimism that things are progressing in the right direction.
What more could be done to support refugees and the civil society that supports them in the region?
While the Refugee Convention is still incredibly important, this is no longer the pinnacle and the sole focus of our advocacy. We have states that have signed it that completely ignore it. So now we’re looking for tangible legal and policy changes on the ground.
International civil society can help by keeping things on the agenda. Asia as a region is quite often forgotten and underrepresented globally. The huge refugee movements and protracted situations in Asia are often completely overlooked. A million Afghanis have been in Iran for 40 years with several million more in Pakistan. There are 100,000 Myanmar refugees on the Thai border along with the million-plus Rohingyas in Bangladesh. Compare this to headlines about migration in Europe and the USA and you’ll soon realise that our perception of refugee crises is skewed. There are these massive populations that don’t make the same global media impact and don’t get the attention they deserve. Keeping things on the agenda is really important.
Cohesive messaging and cohesive action are also important. We all need to be able to work together to share resources and best practices, understand what is happening in other regions and learn the lessons that can be applied. I think in civil society we tend to look at the same things again and again: we look at national governments, the United Nations, we talk to ourselves a lot, but I think there are under-utilised mechanisms, such as ASEAN, the European Parliament and the private sector. I think in sensitive situations, such as with the Uighurs, the European Parliament could be lobbied to put pressure on ASEAN, which could then put pressure on the government of China. We need to look outside the box at how we can utilise regional platforms and also have other countries exert their influence in the region.
People such as Abdul Aziz Muhammat, who spent years in the Australian government’s detention centre in Papua New Guinea and campaigns for refugees’ rights, should inspire us, and he should be a person we all aspire to be. He’s had such a traumatic life and so many things have gone against him, but he remains so positive and so ardent about supporting other populations. He continues to speak up for those left behind after him. To see refugees who have gone through everything and still fight for other refugees is inspiring. It’s about finding ways to make refugee voices stronger.