The law of asylum in the Middle East and Asia:

Developing legal engagement at the frontiers of the international refugee regime

Is someone a refugee if he or she has fled to a state that hasn't signed the Refugee Convention or recognised refugees in its domestic law? If this person isn't a refugee, does he or she have any rights? What protection is owed to him or her by the new state of residence? How can the law, lawyers and legal institutions respond to the vulnerability, needs and capacities of such individuals?

From Lebanon through to Malaysia, a majority of the world’s refugees live in a broad, contiguous swath of states that have not signed up to the core international agreements concerning how refugees should be protected. In such locations, refugees are often treated as "outside of the law" and subject to discrimination, abuse and other serious human rights violations. The answers to the opening questions for these people are too often in the negative and the result can be catastrophic for refugees. Refugees in these locations suffer a range of mistreatment as result of being seen as outside of the law, including irregular status, discriminatory treatment from landlords and employers, sexual harassment and assault with impunity (including at the hands of state officials), arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention (often in conditions so severe as to put their life at risk), and corporal punishments such as canning. This project seeks to systematically explore some recent successes by local providers of legal aid to refugees in such situations and to determine whether these successes can form the basis for a new approach to refugee protection.

Working with four leading providers of legal aid to refugees in Egypt, India, Malaysia and Hong Kong, the project will evaluate the experiences of refugees, lawyers and legal aid organisations in using innovative legal arguments and frameworks to protect refugees. The project will support the mapping of the relevant local legal frameworks through doctrinal legal analysis, interviews and workshops with legal experts, and discussion with refugee community leaders. The project will provide funding to local lawyers to pursue legal advocacy for the rights of refugees drawing on a range of innovative sources of law, including other international treaties, local constitutional law, various local legislative provisions, local jurisprudence, and common-law principles. It will collect detailed stories about 120 of these legal encounters; these stories will be documented over time, using a range of material, and from multiple points of view. Forty of the stories will be turned in to multi-media, digital stories for further online discussion and advocacy.

The project will work closely with project partners. A series of international workshops will ensure that partners receive training and capacity building in the research methods of the project and fully participate in the analysis of the data produced by the project. The findings of the project will be shared with the scholarly and professional communities through sub-regional workshops hosted in each of the four countries under study and through the presentation of the findings at a range of international conferences and meetings.

The goal of the project is to support new refugee legal aid programming in the Global South, particularly in places where such programming has been overlooked because either or both the lack of the Refugee Convention and the absence of local refugee legislation. It aims to develop a better understanding of the process of litigation and factors that influence its success. As both the UN more generally and UNHCR more specifically move towards a renewed emphasis on the rule of law, the project will suggest pathways to protection that are consistent with this new emphasis and which pay attention to the expertise and agency of local legal and refugee communities.

Key facts about the project:

  • Principal investigator: Martin Jones; Co-Investigators: Alice Nah and Juliana Mesah (University of York) and Kelley Loper (University of Hong Kong)
  • Funded by: Global Challenges programme of research through a jointly managed call by the ESRC and AHRC
  • Key project partners: Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights (Egypt); Ara Trust (India); North South Institute (Malaysia); and, Daly and Associates (Hong Kong)
  • Amount and duration: £ 299,448.80 for 24 months (November 2016 to October 2018)

For more information about this project, please contact: Martin Jones (