'Being' a refugee in urban Kuala Lumpur: Performance, knowledge and the perception of others

ANU Malaysia Institute Seminar


Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter, Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Queensland


Weston Theatre, JG Crawford Building (132), Lennox Crossing, ANU


Wednesday, 16 August, 2017 - 16:00 to 17:30

Presented by the ANU Malaysia Institute

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. They are provided no government support nor do they have work rights. 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 in order to present and be a refugee, they have to perform legible scripts for the purposes of registration as well as within the network of service providers and NGOs supporting them. Moving beyond said scripts is dangerous as it can undermine their status and change their perception by others. 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 (yet) a refugee in Malaysia. This research is based on one year of ethnographic fieldwork in Malaysia in 2015-2016.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Queensland. He conducts research with refugees in Southeast Asia, on refugee and immigration policy and on religion and the state. He is a regular commentator in newspapers, radio and online media on topics of his research. He holds a BA and MA in social anthropology from the University of Kent and PhD from La Trobe University.

From 2014-2017 he was the recipient of an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Award (project number DE140100052) to conduct research with urban refugees in Malaysia.

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. 



Samuel Bashfield
6125 1169

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