The ambiguous authority of a ‘surrogate state’: UNHCR’s negotiation of asylum in the complexities of migration in Southeast Asia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


‪In complex migration contexts, protection actors have had to invest tremendous effort into signifying “refugees” as a legitimate type of non-citizen deserving of international protection. This article examines how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reinforces the distinction between “refugees” and “migrants” through resource-intensive practices of identification, intervention, and advocacy in Malaysia, which have resulted in the partial, impermanent protection of some refugees. In such situations, UNHCR takes on properties of a “surrogate state” but does so without sovereignty, negotiating the protection of refugees in urban and rural areas with ambiguous authority. In recent years, Rohingyas have become the archetypal refugee in Southeast Asia. Troublingly, UNHCR has argued that other refugees from Myanmar in protracted situations are no longer in need of international protection. Contemporary constructions of “refugees” fail to address the complexities of migration but have become a necessary protection measure. Alternative ways are needed to address the precarity of diverse mobile subjects in Southeast Asia.‪
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-86
Number of pages24
JournalRevue Européenne des Migrations Internationales
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019

Bibliographical note

© 2019 Université de Poitiers. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.

Cite this