Penne Mathew and Tristan Harley…Regional Cooperation on refugees

Apr 29, 2014

In November last year Penne Mathew and Tristan Harley of the Australian National University undertook field work in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to examine the treatment of refugees in those countries and to discuss the possibilities of improved regional cooperation amongst themselves and also with resettlement countries such as Australia. I am strongly of the view that shared responsibility and cooperation is essential

The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa recently put the case succinctly. “For Indonesia, the message is crystal clear: the cross border and complex nature of irregular movements of persons defies national solutions…There is no other recourse but to take a comprehensive and coordinated approach…a sense of burden sharing and common responsibility should be the basis for our cooperation.

.John Menadue

The Executive Summary and Recommendations follow. This report is based on fieldwork that Professor Penelope Mathew and Mr Tristan Harley conducted in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in October – November 2013. The authors gratefully acknowledge all of the participants in our research who graciously offered their time, expertise and hospitality. The purpose of the fieldwork was to examine the treatment of refugees in each of the three countries and discuss the issue of regional cooperation with respect to refugees in the Southeast Asia region. Some key findings of the fieldwork are:


a)      Thailand and Malaysia remain reluctant to become party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol because they believe that it will lead to an increase in the number of refugees arriving in their territory and they believe that there are associated security threats. On the other hand, ratification is currently part of Indonesia’s national agenda. However, there are concerns that this process has been stalled and may not be realised.

b)      States in the Southeast Asia region have indicated a desire to cooperate with one another in the area of refugee protection, particularly through the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime (the Bali Process) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, states continue to act unilaterally in ways that endanger refugees and cause friction among states. Current Australian policies undermine efforts at regional cooperation.

c)      Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia recognise that regional cooperation is necessary in order to address the particular refugee situations that each country is facing individually and to tackle the initial causes of displacement in countries of origin. While ASEAN members adhere to the principle of non-interference in the sovereignty of other states, it was suggested that ASEAN could be an appropriate forum whereby states could assist countries of origin to minimise the need for persons to flee the country and seek asylum elsewhere.

d)      Interviewees in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia suggested that resettlement programmes in the region should be increased and that states from outside the region should increase their efforts to help share the responsibility of hosting refugees.

e)      Malaysia and Indonesia appear willing to consider granting refugees the right to work. However, there are strong concerns about how this policy would affect national migrant worker schemes and domestic labour supply. States are also concerned about the ‘pull factor’ that they perceive such a policy may produce.

This report concludes by making recommendations for states to enhance the protection framework for refugees. These recommendations are divided into short, medium and long terms goals. Some key recommendations in this report include the following:

a)      Skills training programmes should be established in countries of first asylum that prepare refugees for either resettlement to another country, voluntary return to their country of origin or local integration in the host county. These programmes can be funded by donor and resettlement countries;

b)      Refugees should be granted the right to work in countries of first asylum and employment programmes for refugees should be established in areas and industries where there is high demand;

c)      Refugees should be allowed to access health care at the same cost as nationals and refugee children should be allowed to access the public education system;

d)      United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, should be expanded and more funding allocated with the particular focus of improving both speed and fairness of refugee status determination (RSD) procedures;

e)      Resettlement states should increase their annual intakes to provide protection to a greater number of refugees and share responsibility with countries of first asylum.

f)       New projects and programmes should be established which simultaneously aim to support both refugee communities and local communities hosting refugees; and

g)      The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol should be ratified by states in the region.

Penelope Mathew is Freilich Professor, ANU College of Arts and Sciences

Tristan Harley is Freilich Foundation Research Assistant at ANU.


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