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

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Publication details

JournalRevue Européenne des Migrations Internationales
DateAccepted/In press - 5 Mar 2019
Number of pages21
Original languageEnglish


Scholars have criticized the ways in ways in which policymakers, decision-makers and practitioners treat ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ as given categories, thus justifying the exclusion and containment of some people who move across borders. However, in places where ‘refugees’ are not recognized in domestic law and where there is little public understanding about their circumstances, actors concerned about their protection have had to invest tremendous effort into signifying ‘refugees’ as a legitimate type of non-citizen in need of protection. Focusing on Southeast Asia, and the case of Malaysia specifically, this paper examines how an international organisation with field presence, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), reinforces the distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ through regular, practices of identification, intervention, and advocacy. Conducted in environments hostile to migrants with irregular status, these resource-intensive practices have resulted in the partial, impermanent protection of some refugees. This article argues that in complex migration contexts, UNHCR may take on properties of a ‘surrogate state’ but it does so without sovereignty. Instead, it negotiates the domestic level protection of refugees in urban and rural areas with ambiguous authority vis-à-vis state authorities. This ambiguity results from the lack of clarity over its role and its powers as an international organization operating at the domestic level within a state. This ambiguity has resulted in protection gains for some refugees, but also causes uncertainty about the strength of UNHCR’s negotiating position. Regional political developments shape the willingness of state authorities to cooperate with UNHCR. Especially since 2017, Rohingyas have become the archetypal refugee in Southeast Asia, easily recognised as deserving of protection. To the consternation of civil society actors, however, UNHCR has argued that other refugees in protracted situations – in particular, Chins from Myanmar – are no longer considered in need international protection. This article argues that contemporary constructions of ‘refugees’ fail to address the complexities of migration but has become necessary in convincing states of the need to protect a certain ‘ideal type’ of non-citizen. Alternative ways are needed to recognize and address the precarity of diverse mobile subjects living in the Southeast Asian region.

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