What is the difference between asylum seekers and refugees?

An asylum seeker is a person who has left their country or region of origin to seek safety and protection.  Reasons people leave are typically due to war, armed conflict or natural disasters. Asylum seekers ask the UNHCR or government of the country in which they find themselves for protection. If their application is successful, they become recognized as a refugee and are entitled to rights and protection. 

What is the definition of a refugee?

According to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, the term refugee applies to someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".

What is the UN Refugee Convention?

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights, and the legal obligations of states. This document was originally formed to protect European refugees due to events occurring before 1951 as a result of World War II. The additional 1967 Protocol removed geographical and time-based restrictions, giving the Convention universal coverage. 165 countries have signed the 1951 Convention while 164 countries have also signed the 1967 Protocols.

What does it mean to be a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention?

When a country signs these documents, it takes responsibility for incorporating human rights standards into national laws. This includes allowing asylum seekers to enter the country by any means (by plane, overland across borders or by sea vessels with or without a valid visa) in order to claim protection. States may not deport people found to be genuine refugees; this is referred to as the principle of non-refoulement.

What is the role of the UNHCR?

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The UNHCR leads and coordinates international action to protect refugees, safeguarding their rights and wellbeing, as well as resolving refugee problems worldwide. The UNHCR’s mission is to ensure people in genuine need can claim their right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state. The UNHCR promotes durable solutions, which may include resettling in a third country, integrating locally or returning home voluntarily. The UNHCR also helps stateless and internally displaced people.

What does Refugee Status Determination mean?

Refugee Status Determination (RSD) is the process asylum seekers go through to become recognised as refugees. One in five RSD applications are processed by the UNHCR, while individual governments administer the rest. Asylum seekers lodge their claims and present evidence of the circumstances from which they claim to be escaping. The RSD process states that applicants should be interviewed by trained staff and have access to an interpreter of their spoken language. If an application is rejected, appeal mechanisms should be made available, although they may vary in different states.

What do you mean by displaced people?

The displacement of people refers to the uprooting and forced movement of people from their home. People move for reasons such as armed conflict, civil war, natural disasters, famine, development issues, political or economic transformations. Not all people who become displaced are refugees, however all refugees are displaced.

What does it mean to be a stateless person?

Many people around the world take for granted being born with a national identity. Belonging to a nation offers a homeland, government protection, the right to a passport and identification and access to services including health, employment, education and social security. The UNHCR estimates that at least 10 million people around the world do not have a nationality. These people are referred to as stateless people. The World's Stateless Report suggests a more accurate number to be over 15 million. Statelessness can occur due to the redrawing of borders, decolonization, gaps in nationality law, the birth of a child to parents of different nationalities, lack of access to a birth certificate and discrimination against certain ethnic groups. Concentrations of stateless people can be found in places including Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Kuwait, The UAE, Syria, Côte d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Dominican Republic, the Balkan States and the former Soviet Union.

What is international human rights law and who is bound by it?

International Human Rights Law is based on fundamental rights as set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Over time, these basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights have formalized into human rights law through the International Bill of Human Rights along with other core human rights treaties and international law. States that sign these documents are bound to protect human rights by implementing domestic legislation that protects their people.

What is human trafficking?

Unlike people smuggling, human trafficking involves the involuntary movement of people across borders. Force, coercion, abduction, kidnapping, fraud, deception and abuse of power are all means to manipulate the victim involved. Exploitation of trafficked people may be in the form of slavery, forced labour, organ removal, prostitution and the illegal adoption of minors. It is difficult to find a country that is not affected by human trafficking, whether it is as a destination, transit or source country. The very serious crime of human trafficking relates to the recruitment, transportation, transfer and harbouring of victims.

How does a smuggling network operate?

Generally people who engage with a people smuggler do so with consent, although the distribution of false information or forms of coercion exist in smuggling. Smuggling networks can be complex, secretive and sophisticated networks spanning multiple countries. Ringleaders may use a number of different phones and false identities and do not usually talk directly to the customers. Agents are employed to facilitate the logistics of travel and payment. Customers can choose a ‘pay as you go’ model, paying at each stop or a ‘full package’ payment to the final destination. “Full packages” can include unlimited attempts if the customer is intercepted during their voyages.

Where do asylum seekers and refugees in Southeast Asia come from?

The main countries of origin include Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. There are smaller numbers of African refugees in Southeast Asia, from places such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

How do they travel from their countries of origin to Southeast Asia?

Depending on their country of origin, asylum seekers arrive in Southeast Asia by different means. For example until recently, citizens from Iran were granted tourist visas on arrival to Indonesia, so some Iranian asylum seekers would fly directly to the country. This has now changed and fewer asylum seekers fly directly to Indonesia. Most people leave their region of origin and pass a number of countries en route to Southeast Asia. Some routes pass through Pakistan, India, to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. Again, depending on the visa conditions of each individual and the country through which they pass, transport may be via overland smuggling or occur officially. Many people arrive in Malaysia and seek a people smuggler to take them to Indonesia via boat (e.g. Sumatra or surrounding islands). Once in Indonesia, many asylum seekers travel domestically to Jakarta where they register with the UNHCR.

How do they support themselves and their families while living in Southeast Asia?

Due to a lack of work rights for refugees in most Southeast Asian countries, employment is not a viable option for them to support themselves. Very few refugees and asylum seekers engage in black market employment, as the impact of breaking the UNHCR conditions and being deported is too great. People support themselves by relying on personal savings or loans from relatives abroad, sent through money lending agencies. Vulnerable people without savings or family support might qualify for limited financial assistance through a few humanitarian actors. All others simply have to live frugally, eat fewer meals per day, sleep in shared rooms and share communal resources.

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