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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Human Rights

Letter: Asylum Policies Must Consider Risk of Exploitation

Theophilus Kwek’s article on asylum policies (“Safer Waters: An Asylum Policy for Singapore?”) is well-intentioned but requires further consideration before it can be applied to reality. Already, foreign talent and foreign workers often receive frosty (or outright hostile) receptions from Singaporeans. If, as Mr. Kwek proposes, refugees are to be welcomed as similarly long-term immigrants, or are to fill economic niches occupied by foreign workers today, risks abound for their treatment. We need only look at the experiences of migrant workers and long-term immigrants in Singapore today as informative case studies.

Our less-skilled migrant workers already face not-infrequent cases of exploitation, mistreatment and difficulties in securing manpower rights. One manager was recently jailed for 34 weeks for the exploitation of over 100 migrant workers. It is also not uncommon for migrant workers to be insufficiently paid for their work or live in fetid conditions. An additional worry thus relates to housing—where would refugees be housed? Migrant workers’ conditions are bad enough—shall we subject refugees to the same fate? Are we, as pragmatic Singaporeans, already infamous for exhibiting Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome and sensitive to anything that could increase property prices, likely to support any other housing options for refugees?

Meanwhile, the integration of immigrants into our society is hardly at an optimal state—a situation that raises questions for the feasibility of settling refugees in Singapore, since they would effectively be immigrants in the case of long-term or permanent stays. Xenophobia is an issue, and the refugees’ ‘sympathy card’ to gain societal acceptance is at best unproven in Singaporean society. An inability to integrate is a not-improbable fate for long-term refugees, especially if they live in housing similar to foreign worker dormitories, or work in similar jobs in which they have little regular contact with ordinary Singaporeans.

Refugees given asylum are thus at risk of exploitation, mistreatment, and being shut out from society. A respectable asylum policy must thus account for manpower considerations, and include a viable method to integrate refugees into Singapore society.


Image Credit: Image (“A lifeline for undocumented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh”) by Pierre Prakash, EU/ECHO, in Bangladesh, March 2015. Used without modifications under Creative Commons 2.0 licensing.