Adrift in ASEAN: Tackling Southeast Asia’s Migration Challenge

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Adrift in ASEAN: Tackling Southeast Asia’s Migration Challenge

Addressing the problem will require some bold changes.

Adrift in ASEAN: Tackling Southeast Asia’s Migration Challenge
Credit: ASEAN countries and logo via

This article is part of “Southeast Asia: Refugees in Crisis,” an ongoing series  by The Diplomat for summer and fall 2015 featuring exclusive articles from scholars and practitioners tackling Southeast Asia’s ongoing refugee crisis. All articles in the series can be found here.

The ad hoc and variable nature of state responses to irregular migration flows in Southeast Asia reflects the absence of regional frameworks for addressing displacement and migration challenges.

For years, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has purported to foster a “caring and sharing society” while striving to establish an ASEAN Community by the end of 2015. Tens of thousands of people searching for safety and livelihood throughout this emergent community, however, have been left vulnerable to state coercion and various forms of exploitation. Forced migrant experiences, including but not limited to those of recent Rohingya boat migrants, highlight state priorities of flexible migration control in the form of detaining, deporting, or simply tolerating so-called irregular migrants (including refugees) as cheap and compliant labor while neglecting the contributions they make to local economies.

Southeast Asia is a forbidding place for asylum seekers, refugees, and other forced migrants. Only two ASEAN countries are signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, and the regional body offers no counterpart to the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and Latin America’s 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, both of which outline regional protection mechanisms and commitments to standards of refugee treatment.

The lack of such an agreement in Southeast Asia reflects the ASEAN’s aversion to regional laws and its primary commitment to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, which hinders the establishment of supranational frameworks aimed at addressing the region’s transnational challenges. Without regional standards for responding to refugees and, more broadly, “survival migrants,” governments of destination countries, particularly Malaysia and Thailand, maintain flexibility in dealing with them as part of the larger unauthorized (and criminalized) migrant population.

Thai maritime authorities have deflected boatloads of Rohingya arriving to the southern coast en route to Malaysia for years, doing so in late 2008 without providing food, water, or engine maintenance and in subsequent years with more assistance (a shift from “push-back” to “help-on” policies). Those that have reached Thai soil have been detained (in one group’s case, for over two years) and deported to Myanmar or turned over to smugglers for overland trips to Malaysia. An increase in arrivals of Rohingya women and children since 2012 have prompted Thailand to accommodate them in shelters, separated from their husbands and fathers.

During a visit to one such shelter in Southern Thailand this June, I saw close to 80 women and children housed in a gated compound with clean facilities and outdoor playground equipment. While serving immediate humanitarian needs and allowing children to leave the compound to attend a migrant learning center, such shelters reflect a similar logic as Thailand’s border camps that have sheltered over 120,000 refugees from Myanmar for decades — they are ad hoc and meant to be temporary, offering no prospects for permanent settlement and integration. Also of continual concern is Thailand’s record of deporting refugees despite international pressure to abide by non-refoulement principles, with thousands of Lao Hmong, Rohingya, Khmer Krom, and most recently 100 Uighur Muslims, deported back to countries where they fear persecution.

In Malaysia, the informal economy accommodates refugees, but the state lumps them into the blanket category of “irregular” migrants. While the UNHCR runs a resettlement program in Kuala Lumpur, the over 100,000 refugees from Myanmar (with an estimated 45,000-plus Rohingya) remain vulnerable to arrest and harassment while spending years awaiting resettlement decisions. According to UNHCR staff and migrant community leaders in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian officials have made verbal agreements with the UNHCR to not arrest those with refugee documentation, though such agreements are not codified in law, and there is much room for local deviation.

When speaking to Kachin refugees in Kuala Lumpur this July, the most common problem reported was that of police extortion. Local police regularly stop them and threaten to take them to the police station, from where they could be sent to an immigration detention center if they do not pay money. The police call those without documents kosong, meaning “zero” in Malay. As one man explained, “They tell us, ‘you are kosong people. We can do anything to you.’” These stops, as well as robberies by local thugs, frequently occur at the beginning and end of each month, when wage laborers are paid in cash. Desperate to avoid detention, the refugees pay varying amounts of money, oftentimes calling migrant community leaders who speak Malay to negotiate release fees. Accounts from refugees and representatives of migrant organizations, NGOs, and the UNHCR suggest that such practices are widespread and regular, enabled by the ambiguous legal status set by the state.

Despite the inhospitable stance of these states, refugee flows in Southeast Asia continue, and a large (though difficult to pinpoint) number of forced migrants work in the places they seek refuge. Though the economic contribution of refugees and other irregular migrants is difficult to quantify given the informal nature of their work and settlement, studies in other locations have indicated positive contributions refugees have made to local economies if given the right to work legally.

While denied such a right, those in Southeast Asia nevertheless find work in countries that are in fact dependent on migrants to fill labor shortages in several sectors. Rohingya men who came to Bangkok as early as the 1990s have sold roti on the streets of Bangkok and worked informally in agriculture, manufacturing, and other low-wage sectors. Others in Thailand, whether living in camps or self-settled, recognized by the UNHCR or not, work in garment factories, local markets, and restaurants. In Malaysia, restaurants along Kuala Lumpur’s tourist Jalan Alor are almost all staffed by refugees, who also find jobs in the large shopping centers throughout the city. UNHCR-recognized refugees in KL appear to be a special category among undocumented workers, as they are protected, however tenuously, from deportation yet still provide cheap and exploitable labor for businesses. If those Rohingya from the recent boats are released from detention centers, many will undoubtedly find work through migrant social networks and lose significant portions of their low wages to police and thieves.

Migrants in Southeast Asia demonstrate significant determination while striving to live safely and earn a livelihood. What choices they have, however, are not easily facilitated within ASEAN state practices, including the current regional integration process. Rather, refugees and migrants resort to an exploitative (and adaptive) shadow migration industry that profits from the demand to circumvent state limits on movement and membership. Attempts to combat smuggling/trafficking as a criminal justice issue, however, will not help the Rohingya and other forced migrants if the denial of access to a state and its protections continues.

While tackling the Rohingya crisis requires changes to Myanmar’s policies, addressing broader irregular migration challenges would benefit from the establishment of standards of refugee treatment among ASEAN states, including clearly-defined asylum procedures, restrictions on expulsion and refusal at the border, and assurances of the right to work. Instead, forced migrants fall victim to instrumental approaches to irregular migration characterized by the power of states to detain and deport unauthorized populations when they see fit and otherwise tolerate their presence as cheap and exploitable workers.

Pei Palmgren is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has conducted academic and advocacy research on refugees, migration, and statelessness in Southeast Asia. Some information for this essay comes from preliminary ethnographic research on local management of mixed migration in Malaysia and Thailand, conducted in June and July 2015.