Refugee Protection in the Asia Pacific Region

REFUGEE PROTECTION IN THE ASIA PACIFIC REGION

Resource person: Dr Savitri Taylor is an Associate Professor in the Law School at La Trobe University in Australia. She is willing to discuss specific issues related to the contents of this page with individuals.

Email: S.Taylor@latrobe.edu.au

Twitter: @SavitriTaylor

Definition of the Asia Pacific Region

There is no universally adopted definition of the “Asia-Pacific region”. Unless otherwise stated, the definition adopted for the purposes of this page is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operational definition of “Asia & the Pacific” which consists of Central Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, South East Asia and South West Asia. Likewise, UNHCR operational definitions of sub-regions will be used.

National Practice

This page focuses on international and regional instruments and initiatives relevant to refugee protection in the Asia Pacific region. An excellent resource for those interested in the protection practice of individual countries in the region is Pathways to Migrant Protection: A Mapping of National Practice for Admission and Stay on Human Rights and Humanitarian Grounds in Asia and the Pacific (United Nations, 2022).

Relevant International Legal Instruments

As shown in the Table below, many countries in the Asia Pacific region have not been prepared to become parties to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its Protocol, but some of these countries are at least parties to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and/or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These treaties impose non-refoulement obligations which are not limited in application to “refugees” within the meaning of the Refugee Convention and Protocol and are not subject to exceptions. Moreover, the principle of non-refoulement is generally regarded as being part of customary international law and thus binding even on states which are not parties to any of the treaties previously mentioned (Cf James Hathaway, The Rights of Refugees under International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed, 2021), 438 – 59 who questions the correctness of the orthodox view).

Table: Treaty parties at 28 August 2022 (NB reservations and declarations not noted)

Country or territory Refugee Convention* and/or Protocol* CAT* ICCPR*
Central Asia
Kazakhstan Yes Yes Yes
Kyrgyzstan/Kyrgyz Republic Yes Yes Yes
Tajikistan Yes Yes Yes
Turkmenistan Yes Yes Yes
Uzbekistan No Yes Yes
East Asia & the Pacific
American Samoa (USA) Yes Yes Yes
Australia Yes Yes Yes
China Yes Yes No (but signed on 5 October 1998)
Cook Islands No No No
Federated States of Micronesia No No No
Fiji Yes Yes Yes
French Polynesia (France) Yes Yes Yes
Hong Kong SAR (China) No Yes Yes
Japan Yes Yes Yes
Kiribati No Yes No
Macau SAR (China) Yes Yes Yes
Marshall Islands No Yes Yes
Nauru Yes Yes No (but signed on 12 November 2001)
New Caledonia (France) Yes Yes Yes
New Zealand (including Tokelau) Yes Yes Yes
Niue No No No
North Korea/DPRK No No Yes (but purported withdrawal)
Northern Mariana Islands (USA) Yes Yes Yes
Palau No No (but signed on 20 September 2011) No (but signed on 20 September 2011)
Papua New Guinea Yes No Yes
Samoa Yes Yes Yes
South Korea/Republic of Korea Yes Yes Yes
Solomon Islands Yes No No
Tonga No No No
Tuvalu Yes Yes Yes
Vanuatu No Yes Yes
South Asia
Bhutan No No No
India No No (but signed on 14 October 1997) Yes
Maldives No Yes Yes
Nepal No Yes Yes
Sri Lanka No Yes Yes
South East Asia
Bangladesh No Yes Yes
Brunei No No (but signed on 22 September 2015) No
Burma/Myanmar No No No
Cambodia Yes Yes Yes
Indonesia No Yes Yes
Laos No Yes Yes
Malaysia No No No
Mongolia No Yes Yes
Philippines Yes Yes Yes
Singapore No No No
Thailand No Yes Yes
Timor-Leste Yes Yes Yes
Vietnam No Yes Yes
South West Asia
Afghanistan Yes Yes Yes
Iran Yes No Yes
Pakistan No Yes Yes

* The most recent ratification status data (including reservations and declarations) can be obtained by clicking the hyperlinks.

EXCOM Conclusions

107 countries are members of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program (EXCOM), which is responsible for approving UNHCR’s program and budget and also provides advice to the High Commissioner. At most of its sessions, EXCOM adopts consensus resolutions called Conclusions on International Protection. While legally non-binding, these EXCOM Conclusions arguably have “strong political authority” (James Hathaway, The Rights of Refugees under International Law (2nd ed), 57) and are worth keeping in mind particularly when dealing with Asia Pacific countries which are not parties to the Refugee Convention or Protocol but are members of EXCOM (i.e., Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Thailand).

The Bangkok Principles on Status and Treatment of Refugees

The Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization (AALCO) is a body which advises its 47 member states on matters of international law. In 1966, the organization adopted the legally non-binding Bangkok Principles on Status and Treatment of Refugees. In 1970 it went on to adopt an addendum to the Bangkok Principles dealing with the “right to return” and in 1987 it adopted another addendum dealing with “principles of burden sharing”.

Between 1996 and 2001, the AALCO Secretariat, UNHCR and member states devoted substantial time and resources to discussing and settling upon a revised consolidated text of the Bangkok Principles. The process culminated in adoption of the legally non-binding Revised Bangkok Principles at AALCO’s 40th session held in June 2001. The aims of adoption were specified as being, inter alia, to inspire member states to adopt national legislation relating to the status and treatment of refugees and to provide a guide to dealing with refugee problems. Unfortunately, neither the original nor the revised Bangkok Principles have had much impact on state practice to date.

ASEAN Human Rights Declaration

The Association of South East Asian Nations is an inter-governmental organization which was established in 1967. The ten members of ASEAN are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Since 15 December 2008, ASEAN has been governed by the ASEAN Charter, which is a legally binding treaty.

In November 2012, the ASEAN Heads of State adopted the legally non-binding ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Article 16 of the Declaration states that “Every person has the right to seek and receive asylum in another State in accordance with the laws of such State and applicable international agreements.” However, ASEAN members have been reluctant to put asylum seeker issues on ASEAN’s formal agenda because of the perception that it would involve a breach of the Charter principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.

The Almaty Process

The Almaty Process was informally inaugurated at a Regional Conference on Refugee Protection and International Migration in Central Asia held in Almaty, Kazakhstan in March 2011. The Conference was organized by UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia and funded by the European Commission. The five Central Asian republics participated in the conference along with Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Iran, the Russian Federation and Turkey. Civil society representatives were also present. At the end of the March 2011 conference, the state participants adopted the legally non-binding Almaty Declaration. The Declaration emphasized the need to enhance cooperation to control irregular migration in a manner which “preserves the asylum space and is consistent with international law, notably the principle of non-refoulement”. It also foreshadowed the possible creation of a Regional Cooperation Framework.

In September 2012, officials designated as National Coordinators by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan met and adopted a Regional Cooperation Framework and Regional Action Plan. The Regional Cooperation Framework was described as consisting of “a set of Common Understandings” covering areas where joint action was desirable. The Regional Action Plan was described as “a menu of concrete actions to be taken in these key areas of Common Understanding”.

A second Ministerial level regional conference was held in Almaty in June 2013. The original goals of this conference were to endorse the Regional Cooperation Framework and Regional Action Plan proposals and to decide on the operating modalities of an on-going Almaty Process. As things transpired, the June 2013 conference communique formally endorsed a document titled The Almaty Process: Operating Modalities but in relation to the September 2012 Regional Cooperation Framework proposal simply noted that it “could be used as a basis for developing a broader regional cooperation framework”.

The Operating Modalities document contemplates the establishment of a Support Unit for the Almaty Process. At present, UNHCR and IOM are undertaking Support Unit functions. Almaty Process Ministerial Conferences are supposed to be held on a biennial basis and senior officials are supposed to meet annually. The most recent Ministerial Conference took place in January 2021.

The Almaty process presently has seven member states: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. Iran and Pakistan are observer states.

The Bali Process and Cognate Initiatives

The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime (Bali Process) was inaugurated at a Ministerial level conference co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia in February 2002. Forty-five states and territories are “Bali Process” members. All of the countries in UNHCR’s operational sub-regions of East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, South East Asia and South West Asia are members as are Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America. Several other countries participate as observers. IOM, UNHCR, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Labour Organization are also Bali Process members, with nine other intergovernmental organizations and processes able to participate as observers.

At the Fourth Regional Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process, Ministers agreed to a legally non-binding Regional Cooperation Framework (RCF) which is set out in the Final Co-Chairs’ Statement of 30 March 2011.

A Regional Support Office was established in September 2012 to facilitate the operationalization of the RCF. It is located in Bangkok but is under the co-management of Australia and Indonesia.

On 20 August 2013, Ministers from 13 source, transit and destination countries meeting in Jakarta adopted the legally non-binding Jakarta Declaration on Addressing Irregular Movement. Although the meeting was not held under Bali Process auspices, the Jakarta Declaration references the Bali Process and the RCF. Like the RCF, the Jakarta Declaration is primarily focused on border control. However, UNHCR gave the Declaration an enthusiastic reception, because, like the RCF, it affirms a commitment on the part of the states concerned to a protection-sensitive approach to cooperation.

On 29 May 2015, high-level representatives from 17 regional countries participated in a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean in Bangkok, along with representatives from UNHCR, IOM and UNODC. Representatives of several other countries were present as observers. The meeting had been called by the Thai Government in response to a sharp rise in irregular sea movement mostly by stateless Rohingya from Burma and Bangladeshis, though use of the term “Rohingya” was resolutely avoided in order to secure the participation of the Burmese Government. The meeting resulted in “proposals and recommendations [being] put forward” for protection of people stranded at sea; prevention of irregular migration and the smuggling and trafficking of people; and addressing (unspecified) root causes. The participants also agreed to continue discussions bilaterally and regionally, including through the Bali Process. UNHCR described the meeting outcomes as “positive”, but also alluded to the elephant in the room saying “[a] key part of the solution lies in addressing the root causes of flight, including citizenship issues in Myanmar.” A second Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean was held on 4 December 2015 with little outcome.

At the Sixth Regional Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process, Ministers adopted the legally non-binding Bali Declaration on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons, and Related Transnational Crime of 23 March 2016. The Declaration emphasizes that irregular migration “requires a comprehensive regional approach, based on the principles of burden sharing and collective responsibility” (para 3). It refers to the need “to address the root causes of irregular movement” (para 4), “to enhance safe and orderly migration pathways” (para 4), and to take a “victim-centred and protection sensitive approach” to managing irregular migration, including through improved identification of those in need of protection and the grant of protection to them (para 5). The Declaration encourages member states “to identify more predictable disembarkation options” for irregular maritime migrants (para 5) and also says:

“We encourage member states to explore potential temporary protection and local stay arrangements for asylum seekers and refugees, subject to domestic laws and policies of member states. We acknowledge the need for adequate access to irregular migrants wherever they are, by humanitarian providers especially the UNHCR and the IOM, as appropriate. We encourage member states to explore alternatives to detention for vulnerable groups.” (para 6)

The Declaration goes on to encourage the implementation of law enforcement responses to people smuggling and trafficking (para 8), welcome the provision of both resettlement places and “appropriate local solutions” for refugees (para 9) and recognize that “timely, safe and dignified return of those found not to be entitled to international migration is an important element of orderly migration” (para 10). It also foreshadows a “mechanism of the Bali Process to facilitate timely and proactive consultation to respond to emergency situations” (para 14).

UNHCR welcomed the Bali Declaration in a statement which also calls for “a new compact that finds creative ways to absorb people in need of international protection within the region”.

In March 2017, Australia and Indonesia announced the establishment of a Bali Process Government and Business Forum intended to enable government-business cooperation in combating human trafficking and related exploitation. The Forum met for the first time in August 2017.

In September 2017, at the instigation of the co-chairs, the Bali Process Steering Committee (consisting of Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, New Zealand, UNHCR and IOM) decided to trigger the consultation mechanism foreshadowed in the Bali Declaration in response to a new outflow of Rohingyas from Burma, mainly to Bangladesh. As a first step, senior officials of Bangladesh, Burma and Steering Committee members had a confidential meeting in Jakarta on 13 October 2017 at which they agreed to continue to engage in non-public dialogue on the issue.

The Seventh Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process took place in August 2018. The Eighth Ministerial Conference, which was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be held in 2022.

Australia’s Role in the Region

On 15 June 2015, the then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said:

“Australia’s response to migrant arrivals has set a poor benchmark for its regional neighbours. The authorities have also engaged in turn-arounds and push-backs of boats in international waters. Asylum-seekers are incarcerated in centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they face conditions that the Special Rapporteur on Torture has reported as amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as defined by CAT. They also violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as the Australian Human Rights Commission has justifiably declared. Even recognized refugees in urgent need of protection are not permitted to enter Australia, which has set up relocation arrangements with countries that may be ill-prepared to offer them any durable solution. Such policies should not be considered a model by any country.”

The arrangements to which the High Commissioner was referring were the arrangements with Nauru, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Cambodia described below.

Australia’s Arrangements with Nauru and PNG

In August 2012, the Australia’s Labor government procured amendments to the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) giving the Minister for Immigration the power to designate a country as a “regional processing country” as long as they think it is in the national interest to do so. The only safeguard against an inappropriate designation is the power which federal parliament has to disallow the legislative instrument making the designation.

The legislative amendments cleared the way to establish capacity on Nauru and PNG to process the asylum claims of unauthorized maritime arrivals (UMAs) transferred from Australia. The governments of Nauru and PNG agreed to such capacity being established and UMAs arriving in Australia after 13 August 2012 were warned that they risked transfer to a regional processing country.

On 29 August 2012, Australia and Nauru signed a legally non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) relating to the Transfer to and Assessment of Persons in Nauru, and Related Issues. The governments of Australia and PNG, in fact, had a legally non-binding MoU relating to the Transfer to and Assessment of Persons in Papua New Guinea, and Related Issues in place between them since 19 August 2011. After amending the Migration Act in 2012, the Australian government entered into further negotiations with the PNG government which resulted in the signing on 8 September 2012 of an updated version of the MoU. Australia’s MoUs with both Nauru and PNG referenced the RCF in their preamble and one of the stated objectives of each MoU was “to continue discussions as to how the [Assessment Centre (PNG)/Regional Processing Centre (Nauru)] might over time undertake a broader range of functions under the regional cooperation framework”.

On 10 September 2012, the Australian Minister for Immigration designated Nauru as a regional processing country despite UNHCR expressing concern. The designation has a sunset date of 1 October 2022. On 9 October 2012, the Minister designated PNG as a regional processing country. Again, the designation, which has a sunset date of 1 April 2023, was made despite UNHCR expressing concern.

On 19 July 2013, the Prime Ministers of Australia and PNG announced that the two countries had entered a Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA). A new MoU signed on 6 August 2013 replaced the one signed on 8 September 2012. Pursuant to the RRA, UMAs arriving in Australia following 19 July 2013 could be transferred to PNG for processing of asylum claims and, if found to be refugees, were to be resettled in PNG or another “participating regional, including Pacific Island, state” but not in Australia.

On 3 August 2013, the Prime Minister of Australia and the President of Nauru signed a new MoU to replace the one signed on 29 August 2012. It provided for UMAs arriving in Australia to be transferred to Nauru for processing of asylum claims and for their resettlement in Nauru if found to be refugees, subject to the case-by-case agreement of the Nauruan government.

The Liberal-National Coalition government, which took office federally in September 2013, pressed ahead with the implementation of the MoUs with both Nauru and PNG.

Papua New Guinea

At the beginning of 2015, the PNG government informed transferees that those recognized as refugees by PNG would be granted refugee visas, which would need to be renewed annually, and would be able to apply for citizenship after eight years of residence. However, resettlement commenced only after Cabinet endorsed PNG’s National Refugee Policy in October 2015. (As at July 2019, 60 refugees were recorded as being settled in PNG.)

On 26 April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that amendments to the PNG Constitution intended to enable the detention of transferees at a processing centre built on the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island PNG were invalid and that such detention was therefore unconstitutional and illegal. The court ordered the illegal detention to be brought to an end. The following day, the PNG Prime Minister announced that the processing centre would be closed and the Australian government would be asked to make “alternative arrangements” for the asylum seekers held at the processing centre. He added that those found to be “legitimate refugees” were welcome to settle in PNG if they wished to do so. Subsequently, the transferees, who continued to live in the processing centre compounds, were given the same (restricted) freedom of movement as others living on the Lombrum naval base. On 13 March 2017, the PNG Supreme Court held that, as a result of the new arrangements, the PNG government had complied with its April 2016 order to end the illegal detention of the transferees. Nevertheless, on 8 April 2017, the Prime Ministers of Australia and PNG agreed to work towards closing the Manus processing centre by 31 October 2017. Residents of the centre were informed that by that date they would have to move to designated alternative accommodation in Lorengau, the main town on Manus Island, where services would be provided. Recognised refugees were given the option of being transferred to Nauru instead. Those found not be refugees were given the option of assisted voluntary repatriation, with the eventual alternative being forced repatriation. Australia underwrote the costs of these arrangements as required by the RRA.

On 6 October 2021, Australia and PNG announced that the RRA would be finalized at the end of 2021 and that, from 1 January 2022, the PNG government would “assume full management of regional processing services in PNG and full responsibility for those who remain”. It was later confirmed that the Australian government’s funding support would also cease at that point. Those in PNG, who were subject to regional processing arrangements, were given the option of transferring to Nauru prior to the end of 2021. Eight did so, leaving 105 individuals under the PNG government’s management.

Nauru

In November 2016, Nauru indicated that it would allow transferees to remain in the country with lawful status for up to 20 years. In practice, transferees recognised as refugees are granted a Temporary Settlement visa which must be renewed every six months and all others are granted a Regional Processing Centre visa which must be renewed every three months. The visa renewal fees are paid by the Australian Department of Home Affairs.

In late 2021, Australia and Nauru signed a new MoU, which came into effect on 1 July 2022 replacing the 2013 MoU and establishing an “enduring regional processing capability” in Nauru.

The Labor government, which took office federally in May 2022, intends to maintain the arrangement.

Australia’s Arrangement with Cambodia

The legally non-binding Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Government of Australia, Relating to the Settlement of Refugees in Cambodia was signed on 26 September 2014 and it remained in effect for four years. As well as undertaking to “bear the direct costs of the settlement arrangements” (clause 12), Australia provided an additional AUD 40 million in development assistance to Cambodia over four years in exchange for its cooperation (clause 11).

The MoU, which made reference to the agreement on regional cooperation reached at the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process, provided for the permanent settlement in Cambodia of persons recognized as refugees in Nauru who also “meet the entry and settlement requirements of the Kingdom of Cambodia” (clause 4). The MoU emphasized that such settlement had to be voluntary on the part of the refugees and that the “number of Refugees settled, and the timing of their arrival into Cambodia” under this MOU was subject to Cambodia’s consent (clause 5). Only seven refugees volunteered to be settled in Cambodia over the life of the MoU.

The MoU provided for settled refugees to be given permanent resident status under Cambodian law (clause 8) and to be treated in accordance with Cambodia’s Refugee Convention obligations (clause 9). The Operational Guidelines accompanying the MoU made specific reference to freedom of movement, access to public education, work rights, and family reunion.

Australia agreed to assist Cambodia to provide “settlement services for the integration of Refugees into the Cambodian community” (clause 10). The services were supposed to be “commensurate with local community standards” and “delivered at a location outside of Phnom Penh” (clause 10). The Operational Guidelines accompanying the MoU elaborated on the services to be provided and stated that they would be provided for an initial period of 12 months with the need for extension being assessed on a case-by-case basis. Disquietingly, Operational Guideline 25 additionally provided that, within 12 months of settlement, “Australia will help facilitate the process of voluntary repatriation of the Refugees under the MOU to their country of nationality, or to another country where the Refugee has a right to enter and reside, as consented or requested by the Refugee.” In fact, six of the seven refugees have since left Cambodia.

UNHCR has stated that it is “deeply concerned” about the precedent set by the Australia-Cambodia Arrangement.

Australia’s Arrangement with the United States

On 13 November 2016, the Australian government announced that UMAs, who had already arrived and been transferred to Nauru or PNG, would be considered for refugee resettlement in the United States by officials of that country upon referral by UNHCR. After taking office in January 2017, President Trump reluctantly agreed to honour the deal to resettle up to 1,250 refugees who passed the United States’ strict vetting process. As at 21 May 2022, the United States had resettled 1,002 refugees.

Australia’s Arrangement with New Zealand

In February 2013, the then Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand announced that New Zealand would allocate 150 places annually out of its existing Refugee Quota Program to resettle refugees from Nauru and PNG. Although the offer remained open, the Coalition government, which took office in Australia in September 2013, resisted taking it up fearing that those resettled might take advantage of the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement to relocate to Australia at a later date. In March 2022, it changed its stance and made a joint announcement with the New Zealand government that New Zealand would allocate 150 places annually for three years out of its existing Refugee Quota Program to resettle refugees from the “existing regional processing cohort”. It was subsequently made clear that there would be legislative or regulatory change to prevent those refugees later relocating from New Zealand to Australia.

Civil Society Initiatives

The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) is a network of civil society organizations and individuals with a commitment to advancing refugee rights in the Asia Pacific region. APRRN, which was established in November 2008, engages in information sharing, mutual capacity building and advocacy.

Another civil society initiative is the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration (ADFM, formerly called the Track II Dialogue on Forced Migration) which commenced in August 2015 and consists of a series of meetings convened by the Centre for Policy Development and partner organizations. The Co-Chairs’ Statement of the Senior Official’s Meeting which preceded the Sixth Regional Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process welcomed input from the Dialogue and supported a recommendation made by it to review the region’s response to the previous year’s Indian Ocean irregular migration crisis and to draw lessons from it. The recommendation found its way into the Ministerial Conference Final Co-Chairs’ Statement, though without acknowledgement of its provenance. In July 2022, ADFM published Future Ready: Opportunities to reform the Bali Process on its twentieth anniversary. It remains to be seen whether the recommendations in this report will be taken up.

The Asia Pacific Network of Refugees (APNOR) emerged from the Asia Pacific Summit of Refugees held in October 2018. It is a network of refugee-led groups which supports and promotes refugee-led initiatives and refugee self-representation.