In recent history, Singapore has had a complicated relationship with refugees. Having been burned once before, Singapore now routinely turns away refugees with the intention of turning the responsibility over to a third party. But should they be doing more to help? Here to help you decide are ten facts about refugees in Singapore:
- Following the Vietnam war, refugees known as “Vietnamese boat people” came flooding out of their country to Southeast Asia looking for a safe haven. With this refugee crisis in mind, the Singapore government and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agreed on a policy that would provide refugees with international protection. Singapore was to be a kind of limbo by temporarily housing refugees in a transit camp while the UNHCR planned for a more permanent resettlement.
- However, the number of refugees continuously arriving proved to be too great, and after a 1989 conference on Indochinese refugees in which committee members decided to enact a new policy called the Comprehensive Plan of Action, Singapore’s transit camp suffered greatly. With a new refugee screening policy in place, Singapore continued to accept new entrants, but the entrants were now not guaranteed resettlement, even temporarily.
- Singapore’s transit camp was now a place for rejected asylum seekers to gather, many of whom refused to leave voluntarily. The threat of repatriation caused many refugees to protest the UNHCR, go on hunger strike, or even attempt suicide. Singapore government officials, feeling betrayed by resettlement countries and embittered by the whole experience, closed the camp in 1996 and promised that refugees would no longer be allowed in Singapore, even if another country pledged to take them in.
- For many years, Singapore held firm to this policy, stopping refugees at coastlines and, instead of taking them in, providing them with food, water and fuel before sending them away.
- However, Singapore’s refugee policy has been slowly softening in recent years. In 2009, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, addressed the problem of Rohingyas searching for, and being unable to find, a haven after fleeing from Burma. A senior minister of state for foreign affairs clarified that Singapore could not accept asylum seekers, but would offer humanitarian aid so that they could depart for another country.
- Apart from Singapore’s unpleasant experience with refugees in the past, the government gives one other reason for refusing to accept new entrants into the country: space. Singapore is the second smallest country in Asia and also one of the most densely populated. Refugees would certainly put an extra strain on the country’s infrastructure.
- A lack of space cannot be reason alone to reject refugees, as Singapore actually plans to increase its population from approximately 5.5 million to up to 6.9 million by the year 2030. In 2013, Singapore’s Population White Paper projected this growth, arguing that the country’s land area has grown by 23 percent since 1965 and that increasingly stable investments into infrastructure facilities and land capacity make this population growth sustainable.
- As of right now, refugees in Singapore are completely unwelcome, joining one of many Southeast Asian countries that refuse to do so.
- It may be, though, that Singapore is finally healing from its past experiences with refugees. In 2016, the UNCHR launched a new campaign to appeal to governments around the world to join the fight to end statelessness, with a special chapter dedicated to Advocates for Refugees in Singapore (the AFR-SG).
- Singapore is still a long way away from changing its policy on accepting refugees, but with the continued efforts of the UNCHR, the AFR-SG and anybody who takes the time to help, it is possible to move toward finding a home for the millions of people still left stateless.
– Audrey Palzkill