Refugee Protection in ASEAN: The Case of The Rohingya Refugee Crisis

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Davies, Sara E
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Jeffery, Renee
Feng, Huiyun
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This thesis originates from the following perplexing observation. Between 2012 and 2018, Southeast Asia witnessed the Rohingya refugee crisis, during which thousands of Rohingya refugees left Myanmar to seek asylum in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Despite growing calls for the establishment of a regional refugee protection framework to respond to the crisis, the key regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), did not adopt a formal framework on refugee protection. In the existing literature, ASEAN’s failure to develop a regional refugee protection framework has been explained in terms of its historical disengagement with the international refugee protection regime, the absence of regional wars, and the ASEAN norm of sovereign noninterference. Although they provide important insights into the crisis, these three explanations remain unable to explain why ASEAN failed to collectively adapt refugee protection norms to suit its own regional context. Norm localization theory suggests that a political crisis, such as the Rohingya refugee crisis, can trigger the localization of an external norm in response to calls for a new normative order. Once triggered, the success of the localization process depends on the roles played by norm entrepreneurs, the strength of cognitive priors, and the impact of the external norm on local authority. This thesis argues that the Rohingya refugee crisis did not trigger the localization of refugee protection norms due to a lack of multi-level consensus on how to describe the crisis, to frame the victims of the crisis, and to identify possible solutions for their protection. In the absence of international consensus on the collective response to the crisis, the Rohingya refugee crisis was framed by ASEAN as an internal affair or episode of communal strife. This obstructed recognition of the Rohingya crisis as a refugee protection crisis. When it came to the victims of the crisis, ASEAN retained its cognitive prior of responsibility shifting by relying on a securitized agenda of human trafficking and people smuggling to avoid any responsibility for the refugees. The thesis finds that refugee protection solutions were mainly developed by local states. Grafting protection solutions developed by the international community, local protection solutions for the Rohingya refugees demonstrated some progress toward international standards. However, political and economic interests in each host state limited the development of local refugee protection frameworks throughout the three phases of the Rohingya refugee crisis. The empirical findings of this thesis contribute to the development of norm localization theory by showing how, in this case, each of its contributing factors impeded the adoption of a regional refugee protection framework. It also highlights additional factors that allow norm localization theory to better explain the failure of ASEAN in protecting the Rohingya refugee population. Going beyond the heavy focus on the role of regional organizations in translating external norms in norm localization theory, the thesis points out the importance of multi-level consistency between the international community, regional organizations, and local states in framing external norms and elucidates the factors at the local state level that influence the trajectories of the localization process. This is the lesson that the case of Rohingya refugee crisis offers for similar future crises in ASEAN and other regions where the refugee protection norm has been resisted. The empirical findings also provide significant insights that enrich the existing literature on barriers to refugee protection in ASEAN.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
School of Govt & Int Relations
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Refugee Protection
Rohingya refugee crisis
International Relations
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