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Doors being opened for refugees in some Asian countries

19 February 20180 comments

There are moves in some ASEAN nations to improve the protection regimes for refugees currently living in limbo with no legal rights and access only to work in the black economy, a conference on refugees has heard.

Deepa Nambiar, a lawyer with the NGO Asylum Access Malaysia, told the Refugee Alternatives Conference held at Melbourne University this week that doors are opening slowly for refugees and asylum seekers in some Asian countries.

She said the trend represented “an unprecedented opportunity” to support a recognition of legal status and work rights for refugees in the region.

“There are some positive updates in the refugee policies in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand,” Ms Nambiar said.

“Two years ago the Malaysian government announced it was working on a pilot program with the Rohingya refugees that afforded them the right to work and there are indications the program will expand,” she said.

Ms Nambiar said the government has also announced a registration system for refugees in Malaysia although issues around national security provisions remain uncertain.

“Also, the Thai government in 2017 decided to develop a screening mechanism for refugees and the early drafts of this indicate it could include legal status and work rights. It also seems it will mean the end of the detention of children,” she said.

“In Indonesia in 2016 we saw a presidential decree that recognised for the first time the definition of a refugee. There was also, for the first time, provision of government resources for the protection of refugees,” Ms Nambiar said.

“So these are some of the updates coming out of the region. This is an unprecedented opportunity for us to support legal status and work rights for refugees in this region,” she said.

The moves could represent the beginnings of what could be longer term refugee protection measures in these three countries.

Currently there are around 60,000 Rohingya refugees registered in Malaysia but some estimates say there are another 100,000 who are unregistered.

Ms Nambiar said Rohingya refugees were attracted to Malaysia because of existing networks, a common religion, language and employment opportunities.

“There is the opportunity for legal status and work rights for Rohingyas in Malaysia,” she said.

Ms Nambiar said the situation in Thailand and Indonesia was slightly different because there were more refugees from Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam.

“But still the prospects for resettlement and integration look promising,” she said.

Ms Nambiar said governments in the region were susceptible to what she termed “foreign pressure” over refugee rights.

“We could see a local – or regional – solution. Governments in these countries are quite receptive to foreign pressure. They care about their image and their reputation as nations matters to them.

“In Malaysia, the government has authorised the development of a national human rights action plan and one reason is to increase the reputation of the country in the international community.

“So, there is an opportunity for government and other bodies to put pressure and to ease the burden of host countries for refugee protection in the region,” Ms Nambiar said.

Bu she said two issues that might derail progress were an increased focus on national security and rampant corruption.

“The political debate about refugees is increasingly through a security lens – so we need to continue to push these governments on human rights,” Ms Deepa said.

“Secondly, there are high levels of corruption in these countries and this can prevent even the best refugee protection initiatives from being implemented,” she said.

The conference also heard that at the same time there has been decreasing support for refugees in the Asia-Pacific regions.

Chair of the of the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network Professor Yiombi Thona said that as numbers of Rohingya people needing protection was increasing, resources were decreasing.

He called on Australia to take a leadership role to improve protection for refugees in the region.

“If other countries provide protection, there’ll be less people getting in boats,” Professor Thona said.



Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist