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.
MAE LA —Saw Htoo Paw sits across from me in his bamboo home in Thailand’s largest refugee camp, Mae La. His brow furrows as he says, “Even though I’m 47, I still have some energy to work, but I don’t have a work permit. I can see that my children pity me since I can’t offer them enough support. You can’t imagine what that feels like.” He is among 110,000 refugees living in nine camps along Thailand’s border with Myanmar, a population precluded from access to formal employment as they deal with isolation, malnutrition, and conditions of semi-incarceration, as a report from Human Rights Watch in 2012 argued.
But if Saw Htoo Paw (a pseudonym) did get a work permit, chances are he wouldn’t be paid a fair wage and that he might find himself in another kind of semi-incarceration: to an employer who withholds his documents and deducts exorbitant amounts from his wages. Migrant laborers along the border tend to make half the country’s minimum wage, face multiple forms of abuse, and have little recourse to justice. Many are domestic workers or seasonal farmworkers, who have less protection under Thai labor laws.
While the exploitation of migrants in Thailand is not new, it is a topic conspicuously absent from conversations about the future of refugees, whether those stuck in border camps or Rohingya seeking refuge from Myanmar in Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia. In the language of refugee policy, “durable solutions” for refugees has traditionally consisted of resettlement, repatriation, or local integration. These seem to offer the promise of an end to one’s displacement. But while such “solutions” signify the legal conclusion of refugee status, for today’s Southeast Asian refugees, they increasingly only seem to offer a new kind of dispossession: as precarious workers. What do “durable solutions” actually mean for Southeast Asian refugees, and how durable are they?
In Southeast Asia, even though most countries haven’t signed the UN’s Refugee Convention, there is a long history of ending displacement through resettlement and repatriation, and rarely through local integration. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, approximately 950,000 refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam resettled to third countries as part of an international strategy to end displacement in the region. In addition, between 1989 and 1997, 80,000 Vietnamese and 360,000 Cambodians returned home through UN-backed repatriation programs. Between 1990-92, 240,000 refugees returned from West Timor to East Timor.
There is no question that all this enabled a great many to escape a protracted languishing in camps and perhaps even to bring a greater sense of security to their lives. And yet, the stories of refugee success, especially in resettlement, belie the fact that most who resettle spend years doing backbreaking labor. A 2013 desk review commissioned by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) finds that in all major resettlement countries, those arriving as refugees tend to experience greater unemployment rates and work for lower wages in part-time positions, at least initially. This was the case with Southeast Asian refugees who arrived in the United States and Nordic countries in the 1980s, and today, Burmese resettled in the U.S. are concentrated in the meatpacking industry, processing chicken and beef parts in slaughterhouses.
But at present, resettlement is an increasingly slim option for Southeast Asia’s refugees. The program that facilitated a move of 73,000 Burmese from Thailand’s camps to the United States concluded in 2014. (U.S. and international agencies are processing the backlog and will still consider family reunification and special protection cases). While hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are displaced in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia (in addition to the more than 125,000 internally displaced in Myanmar), only a handful have been resettled, and there is no clear plan in place to resettle larger numbers.
So, it is far more likely that Southeast Asia’s refugees will either return—which is currently not an option for the Rohingya—or integrate locally. Closure of Thailand’s refugee camps on the border with Myanmar and large-scale repatriation of their 110,000 residents has been on the agenda in bi-partisan talks between the two countries for several years; through all of Thailand’s recent governments.
But for many, “home” no longer exists, given all the ways conflict and militarization has reshaped southeastern Myanmar’s landscape. Instead, refugees watch as the southeast transitions into industrial zones with the support of international investment. In 2014, the Japanese government pledged U.S. $96 million to develop the conflict-affected southeast of Myanmar through the construction and improvement of roads, export processing zones, industrial agriculture support industries, and urban development in key sites along transportation corridors. A specific goal in this project is to create employment and housing opportunities for returning refugees, though a consortium of Karen civil society groups leveled a complaint that they haven’t been included in discussions about this development. Given that the average wage for industrial workers in Myanmar is U.S. $2.80 per day, this plan promises to turn repatriation into an opportunity to profit off of cheap labor.
When it comes to local integration,Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have all made it clear that they will not naturalize refugees. That means the most realistic option for refugees who won’t be resettled and who cannot return home is to join the migrant labor force. This has already been an ad hoc solution for many years in countries like Thailand and Malaysia, which leave recognized refugees in a kind of limbo, where admission to a tightly bounded asylum space goes together with proscriptions against legal employment. People like Saw Htoo Paw, left with few choices, either permanently or temporarily forego their semi-protected status in search of wages.
Trying to adapt to these realities in reluctant host countries, and in response to what they call “a period of globalization,” UNHCR has increasingly advocated for labor market integration as a solution to displacement. They suggest that turning refugees into migrants constitutes a “valuable contribution to the growth and productivity of both local and national economies.”
While such market-oriented thinking may be an attempt to make the most out of a bad situation, it also panders to Southeast Asian states’ interests in a low-wage workforce that can help them remain competitive in garment, rubber, and palm oil industries. Such a move risks subverting a commitment to helping refugees find safety and security since, currently, labor market integration means becoming precarious migrants with, at best, the bare minimum of legal protections.
If human rights advocates, humanitarian actors, and policy analysts are serious about ending displacement in Southeast Asia, then they cannot sacrifice social and economic rights in an attempt to protect refugees’ civil and political status. This means the conversation cannot end with resettlement, voluntary return, and local integration, which, currently translate to trading one form of dispossession for another. Instead, advocacy for refugees must be linked with advocacy for migrants and for labor rights. This includes protections for all sectors of labor and the right to collectively bargain for greater protections. It must also include condemnation of unjust and exploitative development practices in Myanmar. It is only through this change—or broadening—in mindset and agenda, that “durable solutions” have any chance of being durable.
Adam Saltsman is an independent researcher based in Paris who works on issues of displacement and human rights in Southeast Asia.