No Common View: Asian Ambivalence Toward Refugees

In 2015, over a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe, sparking a crisis with deep political and social implications. But refugees are not solely a Western problem. In that same year, thousands of Rohingya refugees from the Rakhine State in Myanmar and illegal migrants from Bangladesh were found stranded on shabby boats in the Andaman Sea. A testament to the regional attitude toward refugees, a game of maritime Ping-Pong ensued between Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, with the respective navies pushing the boats from their coasts. The crisis was addressed only when the Philippines offered to open their doors to the refugees, and then Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to provide temporary shelter.

Refugees are not a new challenge for Asia. In fact, Asia hosts the largest number of refugees in the world. The top hosting countries are Turkey (2.7M), Pakistan (1.5M), Lebanon (1M), and Iran (970K), while Southeast Asian countries have more than 500,000 refugees. While the Rohingya tend to capture headlines, the crisis extends to the Chin, the Kachin, the Shan in Myanmar, and other groups, such as the Karen in Northern Thailand. Asylum seekers also come from Bangladesh, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, and Syria. Most of these refugees end up in poor countries that have limited resources and capacities to provide for their wellbeing and management.

Despite these numbers, the Asian region remains ill-equipped to effectively respond to this challenge. The continent has been historically very conservative in accepting refugees and asylum seekers. It has the fewest signatories to the Refugee Convention, and the countries in the region have not developed any effective collective approach to deal with decades-old refugee crises, preferring bilateral solutions, such as repatriation and border policing.

The Reasons for Ambivalence

Before speaking of ambivalence, it is important to distinguish the statement. West Asia, what the Western-centric view of the world calls the Middle East, as shown above, hosts the largest number of refugees in the world. Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, all opened their borders to Syrian refugees. Turkey, which is home to around 45 percent of all Syrian refugees in the region, has built many high-functioning refugee camps that reportedly have markets, reliable heating, communications infrastructure, and interpreters. It has also provided free access to health and education for all registered refugees. Jordan, which has a long tradition of catering to Palestinians, has opened its borders to Syrians, despite strains on the country’s economy and host communities. The 2017-2019 Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis consists of steps to turn the Syrian refugee crisis into a development opportunity, with an emphasis on education to improve employment prospects and on strategic partnerships to support Syrian host communities.

Pakistan, the second largest refugee host in the world, has been welcoming Afghans since the Soviet invasion in the 1970s. Under its National Refugee Policy, the Refugees Affected Hosting Areas have seen the implementation of medium-sized development projects in areas including education, health, and livelihoods. However, because an anti-Pakistan version of the Taliban began to surface in the aftermath of the US war in Afghanistan in 2001, refugees are now being pressured to return back to Afghanistan.

With that said, Asian ambivalence toward refugees is undeniable. The reasons are multifaceted, but primarily have roots in history and culture, rather than economics and politics. At first, it might seem that geopolitics plays a role in Asian ambivalence toward refugees. Asian countries are the least likely to have signed many human rights and international humanitarian law treaties. Even the term refugee is problematic. ASEAN, for example, prefers to adopt the term “irregular migration,” which put an emphasis on security, rather than humanitarian needs. Politically, this can be explained by the Euro-centrism of the Refugee Convention at the time of its creation in 1949-51 in Geneva. In the aftermath of the Second World War, European states came together in an unprecedented way to address the incumbent challenge of mass displacement, possibly also out of repentance for the traumatic events of the War. Most Asian countries were absent at the time and those that were included were marginalized. During those years, millions of Asians were displaced often as a result of social and political changes due to decolonization, but those forced migrants did not fit the definition of refugees in Geneva.

Still, over 65 years later, the European “imposition” argument sounds a bit hollow. The region could have developed its own norms and mechanisms to deal with refugees, as other regions like Central America and Africa did. During the above-mentioned Rohingya crisis in 2015, the lack of normative or policy frameworks at ASEAN level was evident.

Turning to the level of economic development, wealth seems to be another poor predictor of refugee openness. Poor countries in the region host more refugees than their richer neighbors. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines all host refugees, including some from Syria. In most cases, Southeast Asia is a transition toward other countries. Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, three of the richest countries in Asia, have highly restrictive refugee policies. Size is an obvious limitation for Singapore while South Korea is currently managing the resettlement of approximately 30,000 co-ethnic defectors from North Korea. Japan has opted to become the fourth largest donor to the UN refugee agency, but its borders remain essentially closed to asylum seekers (in 2016, 600 non-ethnic Korean refugees had been admitted).

China also remains highly reluctant to accept refugees. Although President Xi Jingping pledged a combined $135 million in humanitarian aid during his last year’s tour of the Middle East and G-20 summit, he keeps Chinese borders closed to asylum seekers. The last time China accepted a large number of refugees, mainly ethnic-Chinese, was in 1979 during the Sino-Vietnamese war, when it resettled approximately 300,000 refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

This ambivalence is due in large part to history and culture. Asian states hold a narrow view of sovereignty, deterring them from accepting and implementing global norms that are deemed an interferance on domestic dynamics. This does not only manifest itself in refugee issues. Asian countries, for example, have the lowest rate of acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and of membership of the International Criminal Court.

This conservative view on sovereignty has cultural roots, as ethnicity and shared cultural identity are historically key ingredients of nationhood. In the United States, for example, there is a more dynamic concept of citizenship, something that can be gained simply by moving there. In many Asian countries, particularly but not only in East Asia, the narrative around nationhood is more static. In China, for example, the government recognizes a certain number of “official” ethnic groups. More broadly, people do not belong to a country just because they moved there, but because they share a common history and heritage. In fact, when Asian countries accept refugees, they tend to only accept ethnically homogeneous people. Religion is also a factor, as many Asian countries carefully manage the religious mix of their population. The fact that many refugees happen to be Muslim also creates an additional inhibition in non-majority Muslim countries, particularly now. Of course, this is not the sole reason, but it is a big part of it. For example, apart from Islamophobia, the Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar see the Rohingya as competitors for scarce economic resources.

The Way Forward

The traditional view of sovereignty espoused by many Asian states, as well as their complex cultural dynamics, will continue to slow the expansion of humanitarian norms and mechanisms in the region, notwithstanding the country differences described above.

In the case of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, some have suggested invoking the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), a global commitment to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This is an objectionable suggestion. First, there is no agreement on labeling the violence against the Rohingya people as genocide. Second, the Responsibility to Protect is a moribund political norm, which was given a near fatal blow in the aftermath of the messy international intervention in Libya that was authorized under the RtoP principle. In a region where sovereignty and non-interference are jealously guarded, there is no political space for such an approach.

While some refugees can be seen as useful resources to sustain economic growth in Asian countries, security is a more promising path toward policy development in refugee matters. The recent surfacing of the horrors of detention camps and mass graves operated by human smugglers in Malaysia and Thailand, whose discovery also led to the arrest of local Malaysian police and Thai officials on suspicion of collaboration with the traffickers, has renewed the awareness of the weaknesses in regional border security. With the present threat of Southeast Asian violent jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria, dealing in a coordinated and effective way with human dislocation becomes an urgent matter. Refugees are too big of a problem to be left in the hands of criminal networks and corrupt officials.

A different threat that is likely to trigger large refugee flows is climate change, especially with respect to the abundant low-lying coasts and islands around the world. The Asia-Pacific region will be seriously affected by this eventually and mechanisms to deal with a flood of climate change refugees are badly needed. In Bangladesh, for example, the cyclone Mora displaced 500,000 people in low-lying lands and left over 200,000 Rohingya homeless and living in flimsy makeshift camps.

Security is already the preferred framework of cross-border cooperation on illegal migration. The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, an international forum with predominant Asian membership established in 2002, has started a regional conversation on the consequences of people smuggling, and aims to develop practical cooperation. The legally non-binding 2016 Bali Declaration recognized the need for “a comprehensive regional approach” to address irregular migration. As in other areas, such as economy and trade, Asian policies in this matter will see a slow trend toward “convergence,” a term preferred in the region to “harmonization,” a concept linked to supranational entities like the European Union. As Asian countries continue to rise politically and economically on the geopolitical stage and consolidate their societal identity around their economic successes, it will eventually become more natural for them to open up to diverse people and cultures.


This piece was published in Foreign Affairs on 12 June 2017.