We live in the age of the refugee, the age of the exile.
— Ariel Dorfman, Chilean writer, poet and (former) refugee

The problem

The world is witnessing an unprecedented crisis of displacement.  At the start of this year, more than 60 million people have been forcibly displaced, more than at any time since the end of the Second World War.  Of these, more than 20 million are refugees seeking asylum beyond the borders of their own country.  Almost half of these refugees seek asylum in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Asia.  Four of the top six refugee-hosting states are in these regions (Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan); three of the top ten refugee-producing situations are in these regions (Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar / Burma).

Global Refugee Population, end of 2015

Source: UNHCR "Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015" (Geneva, June 2016)

Importantly, a majority of states in these two regions have not become party to the main treaties of the international refugee regime.  Of the 19 states in the MENA region, less than one third (6) are party to the Refugee Convention of 1951 or the Refugee Protocol of 1967.  The situation is only marginally better in Asia, where only a minority (20) of the 45 states are party to either treaty.  These two regions mark the only significant "zone of exception" to the international refugee regime - a near continguous area that stretches from the beaches of the Mediterranean to the southern shores of the Coral Sea.

 Source: Open Migration, UNHCR

Source: Open Migration, UNHCR

The countries in red in the above map are not party to either the Refugee Convention or the Refugee Protocol.  With the aid of a few short boat trips (across the Gulf of Hormuz and down the Indonesian archipelago), you can walk from the shores of the Mediterranean to the jungles of Papua without passing through a territory in which the Refugee Convention applies.

To make matters worse, there are no regional agreements protecting refugees in either the Middle East or Asia.  Even in countries of these regions which are party to the Refugee Convention, such as Egypt, there are no explicit protections in national law for refugees.  And in countries that are not party to the Refugee Convention in these regions, refugees are often subjected to horrific mistreatment.

The Unworkable Solution

In the absence of national commitments to the protection of refugees, the international community - most notably through UNHCR - has played an important role in the protection of refugees in Asia and the Middle East.  In most states of the region, UNHCR registers, determines the status and is the gatekeeper for access to the services of its implementing partners.  However, relying upon UNHCR for the protection of refugees is unworkable for a number of reasons.  

Firstly, the ability of UNHCR to provide protection is dwarfed by demand.  While UNHCR is the United Nation's largest and best funded agency, its 5.3 billion USD budget must be divided between the 21 million refugees for which it is responsible - resulting in a budget per refugee of less than 1 USD per day.  And this does not include the other populations that UNHCR is mandated to assist, including stateless persons, some internally displaced persons and ad hoc demands for humanitarian assistance.  The Statute of UNHCR (1950) anticipates this reality by emphasising UNHCR's mandate to supervise and coordinate - rather than to provide direct assistance.  

Secondly, the nature of protection requires local partnerships and presence.  As with the rest of us, refugees live their lives locally, at a scale far below the international refugee regime.  Neither UNHCR nor international actors act at this scale.  Solutions to the problems faced by refugees must ultimately be found locally, and will vary depending on local context.  The Refugee Convention itself is premised on such a belief, varying the entitlements of refugees depending on their local context and their personal situation.

Thirdly, in principle, the act of refugee protection (and its ethics) should be grounded in local circumstances and embedded within local communities, of refugees and hosts.  As with other types of obligations and rights, local protection can be inspired by international agreements and frameworks but must be grounded in and respect the agency of communities of refugees and hosts.


The Law of Asylum project seeks a local alternative to the "international refugee regime".  It looks for such an alternative in existing practices in places that are seen as on the frontiers (or beyond) the international refugee regime: places like Egypt where the rule of law is suspect and places like India, Malaysia and Hong Kong that have explicitly and deliberately renounced the norms of the regime.  The project works with local legal practitioners and refugee communities to map the local legal context and the way in which a more locally grounded refugee law (which we label the "law of asylum" - both to differentiate it from the refugee law of the international refugee regime and to signify its broader focus).  While recognising (and documenting) the challenges of such an approach, the project seeks to develop an understanding and produce material that can support advocates in these locations and elsewhere to develop a more locally grounded law of asylum.