Ai Leen Quah, QSA Projects Manager

Quaker Service AustraliaThis year has seen QSA commence work with refugees in consultation with the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), the peak body for refugees, asylum seekers and their supporters in Australia.

Between QSA’s usual field of work in development, and that of humanitarian relief, lies an often-overlooked“grey area”:  according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a protracted refugee situation is, “one in which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile…” (EC/54/SC/CRP.14) On the one hand, the situation in their country of origin is unsafe for them to return; on the other, their host country is incapable or unwilling to support them, even with access to education, healthcare or employment.

“Unless the basic needs and rights of those affected by forced displacement are addressed, the central ambition of the [Sustainable Development Goals] to ‘leave no one behind’ cannot hope to be realised.” – UNHCR  (UN/POP/MIG-15CM/2017/14)

Photo: MSRI

Malaysia hosts the highest population of refugees within the Asia Pacific, and despite some families being stranded there for years, there remains a lack of protection as the Malaysian government does not recognise the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol.

A brief visit to the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI) in Kuala Lumpur introduced me to QSA’s new partners’ work aimed at plugging the gap in access to basic services for some 6,000 refugees. Even for those who are fortunate enough to secure resettlement, the process can take years. Without the work of organisations like MSRI, these children remain at risk of missing crucial developmental opportunities that will impact them for life.

In enrolling young children within the Early Childhood Education Program, MSRI enables parents, especially single mothers, to engage in study and upskilling such as English classes, vocational or business-management training opportunities. Where possible, the Education Program engages teachers from within the refugee and asylum seeker communities.

: Refugee children receive an education whilst their parents can engage in work and skills development. Photo: MSRI

Whilst in the region, QSA tapped into collective knowledge and expertise of the regional Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), having recently joined as a member. A member-led organisation involving refugee representatives, advocates and leaders, the network holds a consultation every two years, the 7th of which was held in Bangkok last month. The forum was a critical opportunity for members to meet face-to-face with a key outcome being the drafting of action plans and coordination on how best to advocate and advance the rights and protection of refugees in the region.

A strict Child Protection Policy is observed in MSRI’s day-to-day operations. Photo MSRI

Representatives from 350 civil society organisations and committed individuals from 28 countries met to discuss joint advocacy, resource sharing and outreach service provision in a series of panels, presentations and working groups. A delegation from the UNHCR attended selected sessions upon invitation. In addition to attendees from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, new members from South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka) were welcomed to contribute to the discussion on the plight of the Rohingya. Topics stretched from such current emergency crises to protracted situations, such as that of the minority ethnic Karen at the Thai-Burma border, that have stretched into decades, leaving children who are born in refugee camps stateless. Various themes discussed in working groups included gender, repatriation, and advocacy initiatives such as unique regional representation in negotiations over the UN Global Compact on Migration to be finalised in December as the first, inter-governmentally negotiated agreement to cover all dimensions of international migration.

Photo: APCRR

It goes without saying – yet regrettably requires constant reiteration to quell the current political rhetoric – that no one country can resolve these matters on its own, and there is an urgent need more than ever for open dialogue and closer regional and international cooperation, not only to address, where possible, the various causes and consequences of these kinds of migration, but also to find durable solutions, whether it be through safe and voluntary repatriation or resettlement. The extent of collaboration amongst so many stakeholders at a regional platform such as this APRRN forum was exemplary, and heartening to see in the face of our growing global challenges.

QSA humbly acknowledges the late Brian K Aubrey for his generous bequest that has enabled this work.


QSA is a member of the Australian Council for International Development and is a signatory to the ACFID Code of Conduct. The purpose of QSA is to express in a practical way the concern of Australian Quakers for the building of a more peaceful, equitable, just and compassionate world. To this end QSA works with communities to improve their quality of life with projects which are culturally sensitive, as well as being economically and environmentally appropriate and sustainable.


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