Playing with Words: The Securitization Construction of ‘Refugee’ in ASEAN Politics

In the political world, a single word or term may have confounding meaning and serious consequences. The origin of the term can be found in the common language of world society or can be invented by a distinguished man, scientist or states person. In etymological perspective, the word refugee emerged around 1675-1685 from the France word refugie which means to seek refuge. It was before the Westphalia that the term of refugee revered to any kind of reasons for the people to seek for refuge ‘from political and religious persecution or conflict’ (Betts & Loescher, 2011). During the Thirty Years War, the great jurist, Hugo Grotius, devised a doctrine in his seminal book of On the Law of War and Peace. In his book, he stated that:

“To drive away refugees, says Strabo, from Eratosthenes, is acting like barbarians; and a conduct like this in the Spartans was also condemned. St. Ambrose passes the same sentence of condemnation upon those powers, who refuse all admission to strangers.” (Grotius, 2001, p. 84).

Grotious’s doctrine on refugee has influenced the creation of modern international law regime. In modern international law, the refugee is ruled under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Under the Convention, a state is obliged to host refugees who arrive at its borders. This principle is better known as non-refoulement principle and has been acknowledged by the world. Despite the 1951 Convention, the African and Latin American countries established their own refugee legal instrument. Both Conventions (the African and Latin American) have a widened definition of refugee compared to the UN Convention. The African Union Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa defines refugee in two distinctive aspects (Anon, 1969, p. 3):

  1. Every person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country, or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
  2. Every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.

On tHe other hand, the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees states that refugee “includes among refugees persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order (Anon, 1984, p.n.a).” The two Conventions provide the supplement to the 1951 UN Convention and cover another refugee like situations. In particular, they firmly obligate any states to act in accordance with the non-refoulement principle. However, this does not mean that the state or group of states consistently comply with the principle. For instance, many dialogues on refugee discourse are held first to determine whether those people are considered as refugees or not. But, even if the people are undoubtedly refugees, most states still reconsider their decision to accept them on their soil.

This can be observed during the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia involving the people of Rohingya. In 2015, there were thousands of Rohingya who fled from Myanmar (Burma) to other countries in Southeast Asia but were ignored by its regional institution, ASEAN, and its member countries. It was reported that there were irrefutable facts of human rights violations piloted by the state apparatus and group of peoples inflicting the plight of Rohingya (Southwick, 2015;    Kaewjullakarn    & Kovudhikulrungsri, 2015; Graham, 2015). Regrettably, ASEAN did little in responding to the issue. The failure of ASEAN, in this case, has attracted an abundance of criticism from media and academic publications. Some series of articles in local and international media seriously questioned ASEAN’s capacity during the crisis (Bowen, 2015; Gecker & Ng, 2015; Hunt, 2015b; Hunt, 2015a; Palatino, 2015). On the other hand, ASEAN insisted that the Rohingya are not categorized as the refugee as stipulated under UN Convention on the Status of Refugee, but are merely a case of human trafficking. ASEAN’s assertion was supported by the human trafficker’s operations in the jungle of Thailand and Malaysian border (Anon, 2015c; Anon, 2015b). In the site of trafficker’s camp, the Thailand and Malaysian authorities excavated mass graves of the trafficking victims (Stoakes, 2015; Ng, 2015). Following the findings, the Myanmar government actively defended its position as to consider Rohingyas (or Bengali in the government of Myanmar’s term) exercising voluntary migration in search of economic opportunities in Thailand or Malaysia. This has been the leading assumption accepted by ASEAN as the basis for its ambiguous policy on Rohingya. Moreover, ASEAN sees refugees as a problem of security. Accordingly, the refugees are considered as threats to domestic security among the members of ASEAN (Kneebone, 2014; Kneebone, 2015). Hence, it is significant to uncover why ASEAN securitized the refugee issue? What role identity that ASEAN tries to perceive? And what are the political consequences of ASEAN if it keeps standing on its securitization policy? In uncovering these questions, this paper will employ discourse approach as suggested in Constructivist theory. The central argument put forward is that the construction of refugees by ASEAN is greatly influenced by its values that construct its collective security. ASEAN is neglecting its role and identity as the defender of human rights in the region. As the consequence, ASEAN will lose its credibility concerning its compliance with international human rights regime. The main part of this paper will discuss the construction of refugees in ASEAN politics. This will be divided into four subparts addressing the Rohingya as the refugee, the securitization construction, the failure of ASEAN’s role identity, and the political consequences.


This research applies qualitative analysis in processing the data. The data retrieved mostly from

internet sources, which include the official public document of ASEAN and reports in online media. The analysis of the data focuses on text analysis to draw the interpretation. On the theoretical aspect, this research uses the securitization concept. Securitization represents a concept rather than a theory. In International Relations discipline, securitization refers to the process where the non-security issues transformed to security issues. The non-security issues will matter as relevant to security issues when the non-security issues are presented as the ‘essential security threats.’ The understanding of securitization is “constituted by the intersubjective establishment of essential threats with a saliency sufficient to have substantial political effects” (Buzan et. al., 1998, p. 25).

Author : Irawan Jati & Emily Sunderland