Asia Pacific: Precarious lives, involuntary displacement of people today

21 January 2010

Related: JRS Asia Pacific

Paper prepared for the ‘Right to Move’ Symposium

Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan

“…The 21st century will be characterised by the mass movement of people being pushed and pulled within and beyond their borders by conflict, calamity or opportunities……

Human mobility is growing in scale, scope and complexity. New patterns of movement are emerging, including forms of displacement and forced migration that are not addressed by international refugee law….

The debate about mobility and migration is not always a rational one. Electoral opportunism, political populism and the sensationalist media have combined to poison the debate on this issue, promoting a sense of fear, intolerance and rejection.”

Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Mark Raper SJ, former JRS international director, 1990-2000

Among many contested viewpoints, significant agreement has been achieved in the Copenhagen negotiations on the present and future forcible displacement of people because of climate change and environmental degradation and the need for an international agreement on their rights. Climate is now acknowledged as a key factor among causes that displace people and leave them without protection today. Broadly speaking these causes are poverty, conflict and persecution, and environmental degradation and climate related disasters.

Existing refugee protection and international humanitarian regimes have experienced new and intense challenges in recent years. Can global cooperation for the protection of vulnerable displaced persons be renewed to meet new circumstances? On what normative or ethical foundations can a renewed framework governing involuntary migration be based? States’ obligations, I argue, are most solidly based on recognition of the dignity of the human person, solidarity, and inclusive relations that value the common good. This paper focuses on the causes and impact of forced displacement in Asia Pacific today.

Forced displacement in Asia Pacific

People living in precarious situations in Asia Pacific outside their places of origin, whose dignity and human rights are not adequately respected, include refugees, internally displaced persons, undocumented or unlawful migrants, victims of trafficking, stateless persons, and those with only temporary protection from deportation. Their displacement is caused by conflicts, poverty, inequality, poor governance, and by disasters for which often the preparations have been totally inadequate. These people travel by the same means, arrive at the same times and ports, and often come from the same countries of origin. Refugees, migrants and humanitarian survivors travel together. All are vulnerable, all need protection, yet while some might merit treatment under a particular international law treaty, for some others there is no international agreement that protects their rights, guides burden sharing or delineates states’ obligations. The frequency, size and shared vulnerability of these mixed flows urge a realistic review.

The Refugee Convention

Between the two World Wars, the world reacted to the hundreds of thousands of refugees created by the Bolshevik Revolution. After the Second World War, a totally new response was needed to cope with the largest enforced movement of peoples in history. The visionary Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, and later its 1967 Protocol, together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were intended to embrace all those persons in need of international protection because of rupture with their country of origin. While repatriation was seen as the most desirable solution, Cold War attitudes made this unpopular, so integration in the place of asylum or resettlement in a third country were acceptable solutions, at least for European refugees.

New circumstances for the Refugee Convention

By the mid-1980s the numbers and source countries of asylum seekers arriving in Europe and North America rose significantly. Adjudication systems clogged up, resettlement assistance to asylees became expensive and anti-foreigner sentiments grew. Terrorists were found to use the migratory routes of asylum seekers into Europe, and undocumented migrants mixed in with asylum seekers.

From the mid-1980s UNHCR’s approach was to offer temporary assistance and protection while working towards political agreements that would halt potential migratory movements and allow repatriation, such as the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese asylum seekers in the late 1980s.

Changes with the end of the Cold War

The world order again changed with the end of the Cold War. The proxy wars of the 1970s to early 1990s were ended. Without the restraining forces of the super powers, numerous conflicts broke out around the world; a number of states fragmented and some simply collapsed. The size, nature and directions of population movements changed dramatically. First world countries erected legal barriers to mass movements, and poor transit countries imitated their hostility to asylum seekers. The broad UNHCR definition was increasingly interpreted in restrictive ways. While UNHCR could remain a good working platform for cooperation for victims of conflict and persecution, and new human rights instruments have been developed to protect some new categories of vulnerable people, there is still currently a serious mismatch between human vulnerability as experienced today and the application of even the available political/legal institutions.

Current challenges and complexities in Asia Pacific

If a second paradigm shift was needed by the end of the last century, then a fortiori a new conceptual and legal framework is needed in the 21st century. Converging global crises – economic, financial, energy, food, migration, climate and ecology – all tend to add complexity to the causes of forced displacement. These intertwined causes, along with the numbers of people displaced and countries affected, add new urgency.

Major categories of people currently on the move in Asia Pacific


Every urban centre with an international airport receives refugees. Refugees also travel by boat. Refugee agencies in Asia Pacific receive applicants from within the region, eg from China (currently especially Uighurs and Tibetans), Burma, West Papua and Vietnam. Asylum seekers also arrive from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, and from Somalia, Congo, Sudan and Angola.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs)

The never-ending oppression in Burma displaces large numbers within that country and has done so for decades. In Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, especially in Cotabato, there are conservatively 250,000 IDPs, from two intertwined conflicts. IDPs have long present.

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