2017/9, 8 February 2017
US President Donald Trump’s executive order to impose a four-month travel ban on refugees entering the United States has officially halted all refugee admission and resettlement schemes in the US. It is estimated by the UNHCR that this will directly affect 20 000 people. The majority of the 21.3 million refugees worldwide have sought sanctuary in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan. However, a small group from this region has made its way to Southeast Asia to avoid the hazardous Mediterranean crossing into Europe and with the hopes of being legally recognized as refugees and eventually resettled in the US, Europe or Australia.
Of the estimated 600 000 refugees in Southeast Asia, the majority are from Afghanistan and Myanmar. The other countries of origin include China, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Vietnam. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia host the largest numbers of refugees in this region: there are more than 100 000 refugees in Thailand, an estimated 150 000 in Malaysia and approximately 14 000 in Indonesia, according to the UNHCR. Undoubtedly, this underestimates the total number, as many refugees from around the region do not register as refugees at the UNHCR.
Refugees in Southeast Asia have already been adversely affected by the US ban. On 23 January, the Guardian newspaper ran a story about the trials and tribulations of a Syrian refugee family in Bangkok – not being able to work, fearing arrest and deportation, lacking any income – but the silver lining was that the family had just received their resettlement papers for the US after more than two years of waiting. On 27 January, Trump’s executive order was signed.
In addition, there are Burmese refugees in Thailand whose resettlement to the US is pending. They form part of the 80 000 accepted through a resettlement programme initiated by the US State Department that began in 2005 and ended in 2014. This made the United States the world’s largest third-country recipient of refugees from Myanmar, followed by Australia. The outcome of their cases is now highly uncertain. Moreover, those who are already resettled in the US but who have not yet received citizenship are concerned about whether they will be able to continue living there and if they will be able to apply for citizenship.
The Philippines and Cambodia are the only two countries in Southeast Asia which have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. This means that the other countries do not recognize asylum seekers as refugees and do not uphold the legal obligations of states towards refugees as defined by the Convention. Thus, even though Southeast Asian countries do provide sanctuary to refugees, this is often the minimal help they extend. Many refugees find themselves encamped, detained and deported. They are prohibited from legal employment and access to welfare services. In fact, life as a refugee in Southeast Asia is fraught with restrictions, uncertainty and liminality. Trump’s ban has increased refugees’ vulnerability in Southeast Asia (and around the world) and closed off an avenue for beginning a new life.
Dr Su-Ann Oh is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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