Considered safe havens for many, Southeast Asian countries, in particular Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have long hosted considerable numbers of refugees and asylum seekers from various nationalities who seek protection and assistance outside of their home countries. However, the lack of national frameworks leaves refugees and asylum seekers in a precarious situation with the fundamental right to protection denied.
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 refugees and asylum seekers, with no national legal protection mechanisms currently in place, refugees and asylum seekers are considered ‘illegal migrants’ and highly vulnerable.
A surge in mixed migratory flows over the past years has resulted in growing backlogs of refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Individuals seeking refugee status inevitably face extended waiting times for the refugee status determination (RSD) process. During this 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 280,000 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, including floods, tropical storms, landslides, droughts, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes.
In response to the growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers in Southeast Asia, from 2016 to 2017, the European Union allocated €2.1 million to enhance humanitarian protection to vulnerable individuals in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Implemented by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the intervention focused 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 backlog of pending RSD cases. The action resulted in shorter waiting times, thereby contributing to the improved protection of asylum seekers and refugees, who, devoid of a proper legal status, were exposed to detention and associated protection risks, unequipped to sustain their livelihoods, and faced limited access to basic social services. A faster RSD process also helped minimise the psychological impact on asylum seekers who were likely to remain in limbo as long as their statuses stayed unclear. Special attention was paid to the most vulnerable men, women, and children, particularly those in detention. The initiative directly benefited 13,350 people by the end of the project. Thanks to EU funding, UNHCR had 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. Most recently, when the deadly tsunami struck Indonesia’s Sunda Strait and devastated large parts of nearby coastal areas on 22 December 2018, the EU provided close to €400,000 in 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. A few months 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 also activated to channel aid from EU 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 committed 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 healthcare.