Making Refugees (Dis)Appear: Identifying Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Thailand and Malaysia 1

By Lego, Jera | Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies, July 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Making Refugees (Dis)Appear: Identifying Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Thailand and Malaysia 1


Lego, Jera, Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies


INTRODUCTION

Many Southeast Asian countries have long been producing, receiving, and serving as transit points for forced migrants without the benefit of national asylum frameworks. Between 1975 and 1995, some three million refugees and asylum seekers fled Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in what came to be known as the Indochinese refugee crisis. Since the early 1980s, various ethnic minorities from Myanmar have also been fleeing to its neighboring countries. At the height of the influx of forced migrants from Myanmar, Malaysia was host to more than 270,000 so-called persons of concern2 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2014, while The Border Consortium (TBC) recorded more than 153,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in the nine camps along the ThaiMyanmar border in 2006 (The Border Consortium, 2007). Despite the large presence of refugees and asylum seekers, neither Thailand nor Malaysia has signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol, and there exists no formal national asylum frameworks for distinguishing refugees and asylum seekers from other undocumented migrants. That these refugees and asylum seekers live precarious lives has not gone unnoticed (Amnesty International, 2010; Human Rights Watch [HRW], 2012; International Federation for Human Rights & Suara Rakyat Malaysia, 2008; Jesuit Refugee Services, 2012; United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, 2006).

Scholars have explored this situation and characterized the condition of refugees and asylum seekers as one occupying "an indeterminate space, an unsettled socio-legal location" (Nah, 2007, p. 56) in which the operation of borders remains unclear. Others have commented on how governmental responses towards refugees and asylum seekers serve to perform and reify states and borders (Hedman, 2008). Such literature, however, has yet to specifically question how refugees are identified when no national asylum framework exists in the first place. Roger Zetter's (1991) influential article considers how the refugee label is formed, transformed, and politicized in the case of Greek-Cypriot refugees. His analysis, however, focuses on the labeling of refugees in contexts where formal legal frameworks exist and where refugee norms are institutionalized. Crisp's (1999) working paper entitled "Who Has Counted the Refugees?" is highly informative and suggests various factors involved in registering displaced persons and in collecting statistics concerning these populations. He finds, for instance, that logistical problems matter in the decision whether or not to individually register refugees, that states for various reasons may try to inflate or deflate refugee figures, or that at times registration is resisted by refugees themselves, state actors, or even the UNHCR's operational partners. The situation in Southeast Asia since the 1980s is absent from Crisp's (1999) account, and he does not attempt to relate his findings to a more generalized understanding of the state, international organizations (1Os), and other actors involved in the regimes of governing forced migration.

This paper aims to fill these gaps by exploring efforts to register and thereby identify refugees and asylum seekers in cases where formal national asylum frameworks are absent. Why does it matter how refugees are identified? First, it matters from the perspective of the rights of forced migrants. Registration as an asylum seeker serves as the starting point for gaining recognition as a refugee and all the rights that accrue to it under international law. Second, it matters for understanding the process of norm creation and of constructing the refugee category. How refugees are identified in the absence of national asylum frameworks could reveal the strategies employed by the various actors involved, the effectiveness of those strategies, and the possibilities for strengthening and internalizing refugee norms in host countries. …

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