Although less dramatic in numbers and media attention than the refugee migrations taking place across the Middle East and Europe, forced migration in Southeast Asia has persisted for decades. In the wake of civil conflict and state persecution taking place mostly (though not exclusively) in Burma/Myanmar, states receiving refugees have responded with ad hoc measures that highlight the temporary, outsider status of refugees. The literature on refugee migration – both in this region and elsewhere – has focused primarily on the causes of flight and the processes of resettlement, but important gaps remain in our understanding of refugee adaptation in “first asylum” countries – i.e. those that exist between the violence of displacement and the reception of integration. In this brief essay, I reflect on these processes, and, drawing on periodic fieldwork I conducted between 2010 and 2015[1] in Bangkok, Thailand and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I argue that cities are sites of haphazard asylum. In the absence of state infrastructures to ensure survival during prolonged limbo periods, refugee in “first asylum” cities wellbeing relies heavily on the conditions of informal labor markets, the ability of individuals to form and utilize social connections, and informal interactions with corrupt state agents. As such, the nature of asylum found in these cities is inconsistent and unstable, and renders urban refugees perpetually insecure.

While Malaysia and Thailand have long been considered “countries of first asylum” by organizers of international refugee protection,[2] government responses to arrivals occur amid a dearth of legal protection at multiple levels of governance. Eight of the ten states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have not ratified the UN Refugee Convention and protocol, and there exists no regional counterpart to refugee protection agreements in Africa and Latin America. Nationally, Malaysia and Thailand subject forced migrants to immigration and citizenship regimes that criminalize unauthorized migrants and restrict integration to more desirable, high-income/savings “expatriates” (Nah 2012). In this context, state responses to refugee arrivals have been ad hoc and inconsistent. The Thai government has maintained several border camps for civilians displaced by conflict in Myanmar (currently holding over 110,000) and detains other forced migrants in immigration detention centers (IDCs). Thailand allows the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct refugee status-determination[3] and resettlement procedures but ultimately prohibits legal work and residence for any refugee or asylum seeker.[4] Authorities have also responded to annual arrivals of stateless Rohingya to Thailand’s southern shores by sending boats adrift toward Malaysia, detaining them for indefinite periods, deporting them across land borders, or handing them over to smugglers (ERT 2014). Malaysia has also denied refugees legal status, but has allowed the UNHCR to operate in Kuala Lumpur, where most of the country’s nearly 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers are living while awaiting uncertain resettlement decisions.

Because their legal status does not distinguish them from “irregular” migrants, refugees in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur face constant threats of arrest, detention, and deportation during intermittent immigration raids (Hedman 2008, Cheung 2012) or frequent street-level police encounters. According to UNHCR officers, the Malaysian government utilizes a “gentlemen’s agreement” to exempt those migrants with UN refugee status from these coercive measures, but such an agreement is rarely practiced (or known) by local officials. While UNHCR officers can intervene to secure release and prevent deportation after refugees are detained, they cannot stop arrests and regular extortions.

Thailand has been more likely to deport refugees than Malaysia in recent years. In 2011, over 70 Rohingya boat migrants were deported to Myanmar after more than two years in the Bangkok IDC (ERT 2014). And just last year, the Thai government deported nearly 100 Muslim Uighurs back to China despite the deportees’ claims of inevitable state persecution. For some, this regulatory context has resulted in cycles of deportation and return, as was the case with a Khmer Krom man I talked to in 2011 who had been deported to Cambodia and returned (through services of smugglers) four times in the previous two years while awaiting UNHCR refugee status determination. Refugees in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok thus experience constant reminders of their temporary status and pressures of onward migration. They know that they can be resettled, deported, or move on themselves but that legal settlement and integration is out of the question.

Lacking legal protection and facing risks of coercive regulation, refugees piece together an experience of haphazard asylum in these cities. The UNHCR and local NGOs lobby the Thai and Malaysian governments to protect refugee rights and security but can only offer limited survival assistance. Instead, most refugees rely on co-ethnic/co-national social ties and grassroots associations to find accommodations, share resources, and acquire jobs in informal labor markets. In Bangkok, Rohingya refugees have carved out an informal niche, selling roti — a fried South Asian flatbread — in busy shopping districts throughout the city. Others find manual labor and service jobs in restaurants, local markets, and construction sites. Likewise, in Kuala Lumpur, refugees from Myanmar work in restaurants and retail shops located in tourist and commercial districts. Co-ethnic ties and informal institutions also help facilitate communication with the UNHCR and NGOS. In fact, because the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur requires that refugees from Myanmar register with grassroots “refugee committees” in order to be considered for UN refugee status, social capital – the social relationships and associated resources available through membership in social networks (Bourdieu 1986) – is built directly into the international protection system. The survival of refugee migrants thus depends more on the social connections they establish in cities than on a codified legal and administrative protection infrastructure.

In these same cities, refugees must also negotiate their ambiguous relationship to the state in order to maintain tenuous residential security. While the UNHCR and NGOs advocate for refugee protection at the national level, at the local level, refugees must negotiate (and pay for) their security with coercive state agents. In both Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, local police extort migrants and refugees through informal, yet institutionalized means. Rohingya migrants selling roti in Bangkok pay the police monthly fees to avoid arrest. In a representative example, one man informed me that he was paying 500 baht each month to the tourist police, another 500 to an immigration officer, and 1,000 to the district police (totaling approximately 55 USD per month). Likewise, a man running a hideaway restaurant for Kachin refugees in Kuala Lumpur explained that he pays 200 ringgit (approximately 50 USD) to operate each month. Scheduled payments like these do not include additional payments police demand in public spaces at any given time.

With an ambiguous legal status, refugee migrants in Malaysia and Thailand lack meaningful protection from the state and rely instead on a constellation of nongovernmental, co-ethnic, and local state actors. These experiences demonstrate the haphazard character of asylum found in Southeast Asia’s “first asylum” cities. On one hand, cities offer refugees the opportunity to subsist, find succor, and exercise some agency amid significant constraints. On the other hand, urban refugees rely too heavily on informal labor markets, individual (and variable) social capital, and exploitative interactions with coercive state agents, rendering their asylum haphazard and unpredictable, and thus exacerbating other forms of inequality and injustice.

This analysis suggests that Southeast Asia’s urban refugees require the protection mechanisms that regional advocates have demanded for years,[5] including concrete state assurances of non- refoulement,[6] the availability of legal work channels, and migrant worker rights – ideally secured through ASEAN-wide accords. Meanwhile, by highlighting refugee experiences in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, it also reveals that asylum is constituted through local interactions with state and non-state actors, in addition to the legal contexts that frame their conditions. By identifying the logics of these relational dynamics, a fuller understanding can be achieved of contemporary refugee migration processes, leading to the development of more effective protection infrastructures, better opportunities, and more complete rights for refugees “in limbo” in many parts of the world.

By Pei Palmgren, Ph.D. Student in Sociology, University of California at Los Angeles.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. “The forms of capital.” In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. JG Richardson. 241-258. New York: Greenwood

Cheung, Samuel. 2011. “‘Migration Control and the Solutions Impasse in South and Southeast Asia: Implications from the Rohingya Experience.’” Journal of Refugee Studies, December, fer048.

Equal Rights Trust (ERT). 2014. “Equal Only in Name: The Human Rights of Stateless Rohingya in Thailand.” Equal Rights Trust.

Hedman, Eva-Lotta E. 2008. “Refuge, Governmentality and Citizenship: Capturing ‘Illegal Migrants’ in Malaysia and Thailand.” Government and Opposition 43 (2): 358–83.

Nah, Alice M. 2012. “Globalisation, Sovereignty and Immigration Control: The Hierarchy of Rights for Migrant Workers in Malaysia.” Asian Journal of Social Science 40 (4): 486– 508.

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