ASYLUM TODAY: THE ASIA-PACIFIC CONTEXT
The Asia–Pacific region (as defined by UNHCR) spans from Iran and Khazakstan in the north-west to Australia and New Zealand in the Southeast. It is a complex region, containing refugee-producing countries, transit countries and destination countries, sometimes all within the one state or territory. The region includes two of the top ten global refugee-producing countries, Afghanistan and Myanmar, and two of the top ten global refugee-hosting countries, Pakistan and Iran.
The region is also home to the largest undocumented movements of people with mixed migration purposes (for example, people fleeing conflict and persecution or people seeking better employment opportunities) in the world. At the end of 2015, there were approximately 134,000 asylum seekers (just over 4% of global asylum seeker numbers), 3.8 million refugees, 2.9 million internally displaced persons and 1.5 million stateless individuals within the region.
The Asia-Pacific region is notable for its low uptake of the Refugee Convention, with only 20 of the 45 countries having signed the Convention or the 1967 Protocol. Within the Southeast Asia subregion, only three out of 13 countries are parties to the Convention or 1967 Protocol: Cambodia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste. Notably missing from this list are the regional leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The low uptake is due in part to the Eurocentric focus of the Convention at the time of its creation and its failure to provide solutions for the millions of people displaced throughout Asia who did not fit the definition of a refugee. More relevant today, countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, among others, are concerned that adoption of the convention would bring with it unsustainable obligations and draw more refugees into their countries placing a greater burden on their developing economies.
Despite such concerns, the Refugee Convention holds some normative weight, and many countries in the region uphold traditions of hospitality towards people seeking protection. However, the provisions of the Convention and the traditions of hospitality have rarely been formalised within national law and there are limited legal and administrative protections in place for those seeking asylum. Many countries in the region treat refugees and people seeking asylum as an issue of unauthorised migration.
Unlike in Africa, the Americas and Europe, there is also no enforceable Asia-Pacific human rights agreement. There is a preference for bilateral agreements within the region, but these are limited in the asylum context. There are a range of relevant forums and instruments designed to develop regional protections, such as the Bali Process, but there is no comprehensive regional protection regime.
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