Refugee Protection in the Asia Pacific Region

Published: 11 Oct 2016


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.

Twitter: @SavitriTaylor

Table: Treaty parties at 1 April 2016 (NB reservations and declarations not noted)

Country or territory Refugee Convention* and/or Protocol * CAT* ICCPR*
Central Asia
Kazakhstan Yes Yes Yes
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
Cook Islands No No No
Federated States of Micronesia No No No
Fiji Yes Yes No
French Polynesia (France) Yes Yes Yes
Hong Kong SAR (China) No Yes Yes
Japan Yes Yes Yes
Kiribati No No No
Macau SAR (China) Yes Yes Yes
Marshall Islands No No No
Nauru Yes Yes No
New Caledonia (France) Yes Yes Yes
New Zealand (including Tokelau) Yes Yes Yes
Niue No No No
North Korea No No Yes
Northern Mariana Islands (USA) Yes Yes Yes
Palau No No No
Papua New Guinea Yes No Yes
Samoa Yes No Yes
South 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 Yes
Maldives No Yes Yes
Nepal No Yes Yes
Sri Lanka No Yes Yes
South East Asia
Bangladesh No Yes Yes
Brunei No No No
Burma (Myanmar) No No No
Cambodia Yes Yes Yes
East Timor 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
Viet Nam 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

Ninety-eight countries are members of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program (EXCOM), which is UNHCR’s governing body.  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 , 113-4) 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 40 th 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 Viet Nam.  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 proposal for a Regional Cooperation Framework to Address Mixed Movements in Central Asia and a complementary Regional Action Plan .  The proposed Regional Cooperation Framework was described as consisting of “a set of Common Understandings” covering areas where joint action was desirable.  The proposed Regional Action Plan was described as “a menu of concrete actions to be taken in these key areas of Common Understanding” modelled on UNHCR’s 10-Point Plan of Action .

A second Ministerial level regional conference was held in Almaty in June 2013.  It appears that 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 with a composition yet to be determined.  In the meantime, the UNHCR and IOM offices in Kazakhstan 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 Almaty process presently has seven members: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan.

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 so-called “Bali Process countries”.  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 Bali Process countries as are Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America.

Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the European Commission, Finland, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, the Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom are able to participate in Bali Process activities under the nomenclature of “Other Participating Countries” .  IOM, UNHCR, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime are key players in the Bali Process.  Ten other intergovernmental organizations and processes with relevant mandates are described as “Other Participating Agencies” and are also able to participate, if they so desire.  Civil society organizations, however, are shut out.

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 .  In the Final Co-Chairs’ Statement, it was also stated that Ministers saw the UNHCR discussion paper entitled Regional Cooperative Approach to address Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Irregular Movement , which was presented at the Ad Hoc Group UNHCR Regional Cooperation on Refugees and Irregular Movements Workshop in Manila on 22 to 23 November 2010, as being a “useful foundation for operationalizing the framework” (para. 23).

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 no discernible 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 welcomes the provision of both resettlement places and “appropriate local solutions” for refugees (para 9).  Unsurprisingly, the Declaration also encourages the implementation of law enforcement responses to people smuggling and trafficking (para 8) and recognizes 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).

Interestingly, although the Co-Chairs’ Statement of the Senior Official’s Meeting which preceded the Sixth Regional Ministerial Conference makes reference to the RCF adopted in March 2011, neither the Bali Declaration nor the Ministerial Conference Final Co-Chairs’ Statement make reference to it.

UNHCR has 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”.

Australia’s Role in the Region

On 15 June 2015, the 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 are described below.

Australia’s Arrangements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea

In August 2012, the Australian government procured the passage of Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Act 2012 (Cth) .  The legislation gives the Minister for Immigration the power to designate a country as a “regional processing country” as long as he or she thinks 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.

Passage of the legislation 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 “risk[ed] 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 the passage of Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Act 2012 (Cth) 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 .

Of particular note in the present context, 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.  On 9 October 2012, the Minister designated PNG as a regional processing country.  Again, the designation was made despite UNHCR expressing concern.  Both designations were approved by federal parliament and are now in force.

On 19 July 2013, the Prime Ministers of Australia and PNG announced that the two countries had entered a Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA).  The arrangement was later formalized in a new MoU which replaced the one signed on 8 September 2012.  Pursuant to the RRA, UMAs arriving in Australia following 19 July 2013 can be transferred to PNG for processing of asylum claims and, if found to be refugees, will 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 announced that they had signed a new MoU to replace the one signed on 29 August 2012.  The new MoU provides 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.  Australia’s current Coalition government has pressed ahead with the implementation of the MoUs with both Nauru and PNG.  UNHCR’s concerns about the arrangements have not abated.

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 and there is some uncertainty about PNG’s preparedness to resettle all those found to be refugees.

Thus far, Nauru has only been prepared to grant   ten-year visas to transferees whom it recognizes as refugees ( extended from five years ).

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.  It will remain in effect for four years unless terminated earlier by either party giving six months’ written notice (clause 17).

The MoU, which makes reference to the agreement on regional cooperation reached at the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process, provides 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 emphasizes that such settlement must 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, will be subject to the consent of the Kingdom of Cambodia” (clause 5).  The Cambodian government indicated that it would be trialing the arrangement with three to four people in the first instance.  The first four refugees to be settled under the arrangement arrived in Cambodia on 4 June 2015 .  A fifth refugee was settled in Cambodia in November 2015 .

The MoU provides 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 make specific reference to freedom of movement, access to public education, work rights, and family reunion.

Australia has agreed to assist Cambodia to provide “settlement services for the integration of Refugees into the Cambodian community” (clause 10).  The services are 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 elaborate on the services to be provided and state that they will 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 provides 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, three of the five refugees did not even last a year in Cambodia before making the decision to return home .

As well as undertaking to “bear the direct costs of the settlement arrangements” (clause 12), Australia is providing an additional AUD 40 million in development assistance to Cambodia over four years in exchange for its cooperation (clause 11).

UNHCR has stated that it is “deeply concerned” at the precedent set by the Australia-Cambodia Arrangement which it describes as “a worrying departure from international norms”.

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.  It has developed its own Vision for Regional Protection .  APRRN is presently developing a Research and Consultation Strategy and a Plan of Action to support achievement of its Vision .

Another civil society initiative is the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration (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.