Forced Migration in Asia: Lack of Commitment to Institutional Framework for Policies

Shaivya Verma
May 9, 2019
Image Courtesy: The Guardian

Asia has witnessed the movement of population in large numbers across national boundaries. Throughout, countries around the world are adopting deterrence policies to control the inflow of migrants and want to maintain their sovereign borders. Migration has now become a matter of internal security, external relations, and high political interest. Migration flows – whether due to economic reasons or threat to persecution is at the highest and therefore have become a significant political agenda. Employment and income differentials are providing push-pull factors of economic migration while wars/civil conflicts, environmental degradation, and natural calamities force people to migrate.

Some Facts

Currently, Asia and the Pacific region hosts approximately7.7 million people of concern of which 3.5 million are refugees,1.9 million IDPs and1.4 million stateless people, the largest concentration of stateless people under UNHCR’s mandate worldwide by the end of 2017.

The conflicts in the region have framed the institutional policies regarding entry and exit. Less than half of Asian countries in the region have acceded to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol and regard forced migration as an issue of internal security and international relations. The regional intergovernmental organizations, such as South Asian Association of Regional Corporation (SAARC) excludes the issue of displacement from its purview as the issue may disrupt the functioning of the organization (Baral 1984).

The numbers show the grave situation in the region, and still, most countries in Asia are not part of the International Refugee Regime. Even countries such as China who are a signatory to the international refugee treaties do not have any national legal framework for recognizing asylum seekers. Furthermore, the countries that have adopted national law on refugees have low recognition rate.

Why do countries in Asia are not Part of the International Refugee Regime?

Scholars on forced migration charts various explanations for the lack of Asia’s commitment to 1951 International Refugee Law and 1967 Protocol.

Acharya (2000) stresses on “good neighborliness” which relates to the principle of non-interference such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) principle of non-interference. Refugees complicate foreign policy and get in the way of strategic and regional concerns. Hence, accession to the international refugee convention binds states in Asia and violate the good neighbor principle.

Secondly, conflict in the neighborhood impacts the domestic policies of a country. When states commit to new international treaties, they often have to change domestic policies, practices, laws, and even institutions in order to comply with those commitments credibly. Countries do not compromise on their territorial sovereignty, and hence countries which are facing territorial conflict will not adopt international refugee regime so that the country will not be responsible for accepting refugees that might increase the probability of conflict. The UN and the World Bank data shows that neighboring countries host nine on ten refugees. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India lie near to the conflict-affected areas than Australia, and yet many asylum seekers make their way to Australia.

Thirdly, the cost of accession to the international refugee convention is too high. International refugee law will impose a heavy financial burden on developing countries while relieving developed countries from humanitarian responsibilities. Countries with a strong economy can manage sophisticated managerial infrastructure and advanced border control policies. Furthermore, Asian countries have always given importance to economic growth than human rights in the name of protecting the domestic labor market and national interest. As a result, South Korea and Japan have minimized the settlement and family reunification of the migrant workers that are low skilled as governments have to invest cost on them and do not see asylum seekers as adding much value to the country.

Fifthly, the international refugee convention was formed to deal with European problems, and the Asian experiences of decolonization were ignored. Furthermore, the 1965 Bellagio Conference held prior to 1967 Protocol did not discuss about the financial distribution which was likely to rise from extending refugee protection to developing countries (Davies 2006).

Sixthly, migrants are considered as endangering the fragile social cohesion in developing countries. Countries such as Japan and South Korea are very closed societies. Experts in the field argue that asylum seekers feel difficulties and discrimination integrating into communities and are considered as illegal migrant workers. Japan states that West would force developing countries in Asia to accept unwanted or politically undesirable refugees after signing the 1967 Protocol (Davies 2006).

Other Factors

Apart from the factors discussed above, there are other factors which influence the countries’decision of not committing to the International Refugee Regime in the Asian region.

First, regional and global norms play an essential role. The world society approach views a  state as a carrier of norms and cultures. Two groups of norms exist among states: states sharing the same geographical region and states in a global community. The approach predicts that countries converge toward the norms in order to establish their credibility on a given issue.

Secondly, countries that have high population density try to avoid additional population pressure which comes with forced migrants. According to World Bank figures, in 2017 out of 10 highest density population countries and economies 5 are in Asia (including special administrative regions of China).

Thirdly, democratic countries are responsive to citizens of their countries. Democratic states do not go against the will of its people particularly when the rights are related to aliens. Furthermore, the increasing number of aliens in the European countries have led to an increased number of violent attacks on the foreigners and the rise of right-wing parties.


Ultimately, in the Asian region, many differences persist between countries. Policies related to migration are considered as strategic and have an impact on national security. Many reasons lead countries in the region not to become a part of the international refugee regime such as conflicts in the neighborhood, regional norms, the economy of the countries in the region, and culture amongst other factors. Even if countries have adopted domestic policies on refugees such as Japan and South Korea, the recognition rates are very low.

*** The author has PhD and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Texas at Dallas. She attended Sri Venkateswara College, the University of Delhi and received B.A. (Hons.) in Political Science before receiving M.A. in Political Science from the University of Delhi. Her dissertation focuses on migration, comparative politics, constitutions, and international relations. ***