What’s in a label? An ethnography of being a ‘refugee’ in Malaysia

DATE
04-12-2018
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LOCATION
Seminar Room, Villa Malafrasca, Migration Policy Centre
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MPC Seminar by Gerhard Hoffstaedter

 
Time: 11.00 – 12.30
 
Abstract

Malaysia is home to one the largest urban refugee populations in the world. The UNHCR is barely tolerated and Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention and protocol on refugees, which leaves refugees and asylum seekers in a state of limbo. The UNHCR registers refugees according to their own protocols and aims to resettle as many as possible to third countries. Until 2014, Malaysia was the largest resettlement post in the UNHCR system, resettling approximately 10,000 refugees a year. Registration of refugees and the issuance of UNHCR cards has been a political issue for the Malaysian government, allowing them to blame the UNHCR for ‘illegal immigration’, crime and fraud in relation to UNHCR card holders and the issuing of cards and protection. In such a volatile environment refugees are often at the receiving end of political pressures and directives beyond their control or comprehension. Thus, they have to perform legible scripts for the purposes of registration as well as within the network of service providers and NGOs supporting them. Ethnographic vignettes from Rohingya and Chin communities will highlight how varying UNHCR registration regimes such as mass mobile registration and individual status determination have created a confused and highly complicated scenario of who is and who is not a refugee in Malaysia.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter  is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Queensland. His first book entitled Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia is published by NIAS Press. A co-edited volume Urban Refugees: Challenges in Protection, Services and Policy was published with Routledge in 2015. In 2014 he launched a social anthropology Massive Open Online Course World101x: The Anthropology of Current World Issues that has taught thousands of students how to think more anthropologically.