For most of her life Nawa watched on as other children went to school. As a refugee, and a girl at that, she was told there was no place for her in the classroom. At 16, Nawa became a student at the Fugee School in Malaysia. Source.

By David Keegan, HOST International CEO

South East Asia has one of the world’s largest populations of displaced people, otherwise called refugees, living in urban areas. These people, including families with young children, do not have work or welfare rights in transit countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and face increasingly difficult circumstances as they search for refuge – a place to call home.

There are very limited options for displaced people in South East Asian countries as they are usually considered illegal and therefore subject to immigration detention. Refugees not in detention rely on illegal work, their life’s savings or handouts from family abroad to survive. Some are lucky enough to access small amounts of aid from NGOs but many end up in poverty or handing themselves into immigration detention out of desperation.

It’s in this climate that HOST International is developing partnerships and seeking to start initiatives with governments, businesses, and NGOs in South East Asia. Our presence in the region aims to help communities that host refugees find and implement localised solutions to refugee issues.

At HOST we believe that many people in these communities already have the solutions but lack the resources and/or expertise to make them happen. Rather than coming in to fix a problem, we seek to partner with local people to help them turn their ideas into reality. HOST will act as a mentor and facilitator of resources by either bringing other partners together or by competing for donor funding. This unique approach is already leading to better outcomes for refugees through the StandUp project, which is removing barriers that prevent girls going to school in refugee communities.

HOST brings operational expertise to these partnerships through our employment of expert settlement and casework practitioners, as well as organisational infrastructure, financial resources and proven results. We make it possible to secure international funding and to bring together financial and humanitarian sector resources to make projects happen that may otherwise have not made it to action.

At HOST we seek to support initiatives that try to do things differently; with a focus on developing self-reliance, rather than welfare dependence. This approach is innovative because it seeks find innovative ways to empower and improve the lives of urban refugees in places that may not be signatory to the refugee convention or be traditionally considered places of protection.

To help us enable this unique model and develop partnerships, we recently appointed Stephen Sumner to the role of Regional Manager, South East Asia.

This new role demonstrates our commitment to the region and will help HOST to find ways to implement our innovative approach. It will also help us continue our work on the two main projects that HOST has undertaken in South East Asia: exploring ways for refugees to enter the workforce while on their migration journeys, and designing and piloting alternatives to detention for children and families in the region.

Who are the refugees in South East Asia?

UNHCR research indicates that about 87% of forcibly displaced people in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are from Myanmar. The UNHCR’s Global Trends statistics, as at 31 December 2016, shows there were more than 274,000 forcibly displaced people in these three countries combined.

About 239,700 of these people are said to be from Myanmar: about 102,600 in Thai-Burma border camps , 280 Rohingya in shelters or detention centres in southern Thailand, 135,800 in Malaysia (including 56,150 Rohingya) and 950 refugees (mostly Rohingya) in Indonesia.

This means that about 182,300 (or 66%) are from non-Rohingya ethnic minorities in Myanmar. About 57,400 are Rohingya, and 34,700 are from other countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Vietnam and Yemen.

How do we improve the refugee journey in South East Asia?

Looking at the diversity and numbers of displaced people in the region, it should be clear that no single, top-down, solution, nor imprisonment on such a large scale, could be appropriate.

We should instead look at how partnerships with local people in these communities can find common ground between refugees and host communities and practical, mutually beneficial outcomes.