– By Julia Mayerhofer, Interim Executive Director, APRRN –
The Asia Pacific region hosts a large number of the world’s refugees. It is also the site of some of the most acute and protracted refugee situations in the world. In addition, there are several million more asylum-seekers, stateless persons, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region. Prolonged armed conflicts, as well as the absence of robust state- based human rights protection and democratic institutions, have contributed to increased refugee flows from countries of origin.
Gaps in legislation
Only 20 out of the 45 countries located in the region are party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and/ or its 1967 Protocol. The majority of these countries do not have any national refugee protection laws in place; nor is there a regional protection framework. This undermines the ability of refugees to obtain effective protection in host, transit, and destination countries. In the absence of effective regional protection frameworks and safe migration channels, refugees often fall prey to human traffickers and people smugglers.
Due to these legal gaps, refugees in hosting countries mostly remain unregistered, invisible, living in legal limbo and unable to access their most basic rights. In Thailand and Malaysia, refugees are considered ‘illegal aliens/immigrants’ and therefore subject to arrest, arbitrary detention and deportation. Refugees may find themselves in host countries for many years. During that time they struggle to access adequate housing, education and health services. Most importantly, they lack the right to work, forcing them to work in the informal sector and increasing their vulnerability to human trafficking and exploitation. Finally, refugee communities also face xenophobia and discrimination from host communities and experience difficulties adjusting to life in a foreign place.
In an environment where Governments are reluctant to take on their responsibilities and international agencies operate in very constrained spaces, the role of national civil society is increasingly important. National civil society groups and community-based organisations often fill crucial gaps – they provide essential services such as health, education, legal aid, psychosocial support, and cultural orientation. National civil society groups also play a critical role in advocating for the rights of refugees given their local legitimacy and access to stakeholders.
The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)
In light of the protection issues faced by refugees and the difficulties faced by national civil society groups in advocating for their rights, FORUM-ASIA hosted the first Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights (APCRR1) in Kuala Lumpur on 20-21 November 2008. At this meeting civil society groups recognised that they worked in isolation in their own local contexts. This limited their access to specialist training, technical resources, and key stakeholders related to refugee protection. They recognised the interconnections in their work, and the importance of supporting one another. They resolved to stay connected and to work together to advance refugee protection. Thus, during the meeting, they established the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN).
FORUM-ASIA hosted APRRN in its formative years, playing a crucial role in ‘giving birth’ to this regional network. FORUM-ASIA accomodated APRRN’s first coordinator, appointed in 2010, and provided the necessary organisational infrastructure for the APRRN Secretariat to grow. As a result of its growth and expansion, APRRN became independent in 2012. Today the Secretariat has its own office and has further expanded the team to include three programme staff; one Administrative Officer, one Finance Manager, as well as interns and consultants.
Expansion and growth
Today APRRN has grown to 136 organisational and 114 individual members. Most of our members are national civil society organisations, but membership also include academics, legal aid providers, lawyers, students, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), refugee representatives and others.
APRRN is led and governed by its members, which work with each other through four geographic working groups – South Asia; Southeast Asia; East Asia; and Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. There are five thematic working groups: Immigration Detention; Legal Aid and Advocacy; Right to Health; Statelessness; and Women and Girls at Risk. Due to APRRN, national civil society groups and individuals have a platform to connect to each other at the regional level and to share their experiences, resources and good practices. APRRN also helps to fill a ‘missing link’ between national groups and key stakeholders on the regional and international level. This helps civil society groups to develop a common and unified voice in the Asian region on refugee rights.
Capacity development and exchange
In 2011, APRRN launched an annual APRRN’s Short Course, which has been held three times since. It remains the only initiative in Southeast Asia of its kind. APRRN also organised several Working Groups Consultations across the regions, launched three sub-regional Refugee Mental Health Trainings and facilitated a number of thematic trainings. All of this face-to-face interaction has allowed APRRN members to build connections across countries and regions.
In 2014, when refugees were deported from Sri Lanka back to Pakistan, our Sri Lankan members reached out to our Pakistani members, who immediately jumped in and provided assistance to those who had been deported. APRRN has made regional collaboration and cooperation between local and national civil society a reality. As a result of APRRN’s work we have also seen national networks developing in countries across the region, strengthening cooperation at the national level.
Over the years our work with civil society responses to refugee protection has gradually strengthened. At the core of our work lies the need to strengthen civil society in what they are already doing – providing skills, knowledge, tools and strategies that places them in a better position to respond to the human rights challenges of refugees. The network has also functioned as a platform for the exchange of experiences and resources, as well as good practices.
Our members have found that learning from each other, especially in such a constrained context, is crucial. It helps to understand what works in advocating for the rights of refugees in other regions, because it allows members to explore if similar strategies can be used in their own national and local context.
The development of the refugee law in Korea has been used by our members in other countries as a model that has the potential to be replicated. Experienced lawyers have exchanged lessons learnt with our legal aid providers in India, which helped them draft a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Magnifying local voices
APRRN also serves as a platform that magnifies local and national voices at the regional and international level with key stakeholders. On many occasions we have facilitated this. For example, not only have we enabled national and local members to attend UNHCR events in Geneva and relevant regional fora, but we have also ensured that our advocacy efforts reflect the actual situation on the ground. APRRN has raised awareness on the importance of refugee protection in fora that previously ignored or apportioned limited attention to refugees.
Over many years, members have advocated at the national, regional and international level for positive policy changes. While there have been several small successes on the national level – the region has fallen short in addressing refugee flows in a collaborative manner and with a human rights based approach.
Globally we are also witnessing a new and sad record number of people being displaced. We are seeing worrying trends of border control and national security. We are seeing more and more protracted conflicts that force people to leave their homelands. In this context, civil society has an absolutely crucial role to play in tackling some of the challenges. In an environment where protection spaces are shrinking, networks such as APRRN become even more important. As civil society we can be stronger, by coming together. As a network with one strong voice, we can make change happen.
The future of APRRN
Looking into the future there is much more potential for APRRN to further consolidate its work. APRRN is already a key stakeholder in the region, but our voice needs to be even stronger, so that Governments start engaging with APRRN more closely.
APRRN also needs to strengthen membership engagement and see how it can bring in more refugee communities, so that they can advocate for their own rights. APRRN does not claim to be the voice of the voiceless. We are aiming to support refugees and civil society groups in strengthening that voice, so they can speak for themselves. APRRN has much more to do in further building a strong refugee rights movement, taking inspiration from some of the other movements we have seen in this region.
I have been with APRRN for over four years now. I have seen APRRN grow and I have seen first-hand the many challenges civil society is dealing with in this region. I have witnessed growing solidarity among civil society and how the work our members are doing directly benefits refugees across the region.
I have had the privilege of watching APRRN develop as a network to the point where it has become a family and a collective voice that stands together strongly and united. APRRN is deeply appreciative and incredibly thankful to FORUM-ASIA, recognising the need for us to come together and to establish such a network. Without their support, the network would not be where it is now.
Julia Mayerhofer, Interim Executive Director, Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN):
Julia Mayerhofer has been with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) Secretariat since April 2011. She was the second paid staff and first joined the Secretariat as a Programme Officer. Julia is an Austrian national and prior to APRRN, she worked with refugee communities in Hong Kong with a focus on resource mobilisation, programme development and community outreach. Previously she was also the Director of Help without Frontiers, an Austrian based charity supporting refugee children on the Thai-Myanmar border. Julia has a BA in educational sciences and a MA degree in Development Studies. In addition she has participated in various training related to human rights and refugees. Julia also has a strong interest in social enterprises and won the Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge in 2011.