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The uncounted

September 23, 2011

The largest UNHCR refugee status determination operation in the world is in Malaysia, where more than 25,000 people applied for recognition of refugee status in 2010. But that may actually be a substantial undercount of the real number of asylum-seekers in Malaysia who might like to apply.

A footnote in a statistical annex of UNHCR’s 2010 Global Trends cautions:

According to UNHCR, and based on lists provided by refugee communities in Malaysia, there are 10,000 unregistered asylum-seekers in Malaysia which share the same profile as the current population of asylum-seekers and refugees and who are being progressively registered and having their refugee status determined.

This is hardly the only population of would-be asylum-seekers who never apply for RSD, though the reasons vary from country to country.

For example, UNHCR reports that just 438 people applied for RSD in the United Arab Emirates and just 37 applied in Qatar in 2010. But these countries host millions of migrants, many from countries in Asia and Africa that produce large refugee flows. If just a small faction of the Somalis, Afghans, Sudanese and Pakistanis who live in the Arab Gulf were to ask for refugee protection, the UNHCR RSD figures would balloon.

Refugee status determination is declaratory. It recognizes that someone is a refugee, but it doesn’t make them a refugee. A migrant who cannot go home because of a fear of persecution but who for some reason does not seek or obtain refugee recognition is still a refugee in principle, albeit an invisible one.

The key issue is why people do not apply. The most serious problem is if asylum-seekers are unprotected and still prevented or deterred from applying for protection. But in some cases, uncounted refugees may in fact be very well protected. For example, in many countries some refugees can achieve legal permanent residence and eventual citizenship through family-based or employment-based immigration, and thus may never apply for asylum.

A more complicated problem develops if uncounted refugees are temporarily secure, for instance through temporary sponsorship through an employer, especially in a country that may be hostile to recognizing refugee status. But they may find themselves in a precarious situation if their employment ends and they lose their visas.

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