Internal Displacement in Southeast Asia

By Phoebe De Padua

The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Southeast Asian nations home to the majority of the region's IDPs. Figures are from the 2011 IDMC report. These figures do not reflect subsequent natural disasters in the Philippines in 2012. Source: CSIS SEAP's flickr photostream.

Southeast Asia, where violent conflicts and natural disasters often drive people from their homes, is home to around two million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Measures that protect IDPs remain lacking in most of the region. However, the Philippines recently passed landmark legislation that could create a precedent for other Southeast Asian countries.

President Benigno Aquino III on February 6 signed into law legislation protecting people from arbitrary displacement and guaranteeing the rights of the internally displaced in accordance with UN standards. The comprehensive bill, the “Act Protecting the Rights of the Internally Displaced,” seeks to prevent displacement, spells out rights during and after displacement, and imposes heavy penalties against arbitrary internal displacement of anyone, including non-combatants caught in the crossfire of internal conflicts. It is the first of its kind in the Asia Pacific.

There are more than one million IDPs in the Philippines, with at least 46,000 living in government-recognized camps. Most IDPs are concentrated in the southern region of Mindanao, where decades of insurgency and recent destructive storms, including last year’s massive Typhoon Bopha, forced many to flee.  The number of IDPs increased more than tenfold after the destructive storm. Many Filipinos were left homeless and in need of humanitarian assistance, demonstrating the imperative for the Philippine government to provide proper mechanisms to protect the rights of the displaced.

Within Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar also have significant IDP populations. When communal violence erupted in Indonesia’s Maluku Islands in the early 2000s, the Indonesian government refused to acknowledge that separatist conflicts caused internal displacement. The Thai government repeated this stance with regards to fighting along the Thai-Cambodian border in 2011 that displaced roughly 50,000 people. Myanmar, where dozens of ethnic conflicts have been waged since 1948, has an estimated 450,000 IDPs. Many are from ethnic minorities that were persecuted by the government or, in the case of the Rohingya, not even given citizenship. In each of these three cases, governments continued to restrict or discourage foreign access to the displacement-affected areas. That access is crucial for ensuring the rights of the displaced in states that do not provide government support.

The international community plays an integral role in the treatment of IDPs in Southeast Asia, but its reach is limited. International partners, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, are very active in the region, but government participation remains a challenge. Only the Philippines is a party to the 1954 UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and governments often lack political will or capacity to assist IDPs.

While government assistance is needed, basic recognition is just as crucial for the protection of IDPs in Southeast Asia. Both governments and local communities often treat IDPs as suspects rather than victims, largely due to ethnic tensions which drive many of Southeast Asia’s conflicts.

The Philippines’ new law emphasizes the government’s responsibility for the proper treatment of IDPs, as well as the importance of providing assistance to those who have been forced to flee their homes. As countries like Indonesia and Thailand seek to become strong regional and international players, and Myanmar continues its reform process, recognizing the rights of IDPs will be a critical step in these states’ political development.

The Philippines, by signing a landmark bill that provides comprehensive protection for the displaced, sets the tone for more widespread protection of IDPs in the Asia Pacific.

Ms. Phoebe De Padua is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.

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