Considered safe havens for many, southeast Asian countries, in particular Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have long hosted considerable numbers of asylum seekers and refugees from various nationalities who seek protection and assistance outside of their home countries. However, the lack of national frameworks to protect asylum seekers and refugees leave many in highly vulnerable situations as they are considered illegal and are therefore often denied the fundamental right to protection.
Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia are the largest host countries for refugees in southeast Asia. Nonetheless, they are not signatories to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Although these countries may be willing to increase protection space, which will result in a more formalised legal recognition of asylum seekers and refugees, with no national legal protection mechanisms currently in place, they are considered ‘illegal migrants’ and are in need of assistance.
Over the past few years, an unprecedented surge in mixed migratory flows has resulted in growing backlogs of asylum seekers and urban refugees in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Individuals seeking refugee status inevitably face extended waiting times of up to two or three years for the refugee status determination (RSD) process. During this extensive waiting period, they are exposed to a wide range of risks, including detention, exploitation, persecution, and economic hardships as they do not have the right to work. Currently, there are more than 180 000 asylum seekers and refugees living in the three southeast Asian countries, the vast majority of who live in capital cities and urban areas.
Due to their locations, the three countries are also exposed to a wide array of natural disasters, ranging from floods, tropical storms, landslides, droughts, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis to earthquakes.
In response to the rapidly growing numbers of asylum seekers and refugees in southeast Asia, in 2017 the European Union allocated €1.8 million to enhance humanitarian protection to vulnerable individuals in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Implemented by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the intervention focuses on the acceleration of the refugee status determination (RSD) process for asylum seekers and refugees in the three countries, with the aim to reduce the massive backlogs of pending RSD cases. The action will result in shorter waiting times, thereby contributing to the improved protection of asylum seekers and refugees, who, devoid of a proper legal status, are exposed to detention and associated protection risks, unequipped to sustain their livelihoods, and face limited access to basic social services. A faster RSD process will also help minimise the psychological impact on asylum seekers who are likely to remain in limbo as long as their status remain unclear. Special attention is being paid to the most vulnerable men, women, and children, particularly those currently in detention. The initiative will directly benefit 13 350 people by the end of the project. Thanks to EU funding, UNHCR has increased its refugee status determination capacity allowing it to adjudicate refugee status determination decisions of nearly 6 000 individuals from July 2016 to June 2017.
EU humanitarian aid has been present in the three countries for more than two decades, providing funding to assist people affected by conflict and natural disasters, such as the 2004 tsunami. When the deadly tsunami struck Indonesia’s Sunda Strait and devastated large parts of nearby coastal areas on 22 December 2018, the EU helped to provide immediate, life-saving assistance to the most affected families. A humanitarian expert was also deployed to the field to participate in assessments and coordination of the relief efforts while the EU Copernicus satellite mapping service was also activated. Earlier in September 2018, the EU responded to the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia by providing €1.5 million in emergency aid. The EU Civil Protection mechanism was activated to channel aid from European Member States. Similarly in August 2018, €650 000 was allocated to support communities severely hit by a series of strong earthquakes in the Indonesian island of Lombok.
Since 2013, more than €1.1 million has been allocated to provide emergency humanitarian support to Rohingya and Bangladesh migrants detained in immigration detention centres and shelters in Thailand and Indonesia. From 1995 to 2016, the EU also provided almost €120 million in humanitarian aid to refugees from Myanmar/Burma residing in camps along the border in Thailand, prioritising mainly food assistance and primary health care.