The Politics of (In)visibility: Governance-­‐Resistance of Refugees

by Leonie Ansems de Vries

Migrants and refugees are in the spotlight across the globe. To give only a snapshot of recent news coverage: Millions of people are fleeing Syria; two overcrowded boats carrying refugees capsized near Lampedusa earlier this month; the Australian government sends asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea under a new ‘offshore resettlement policy’; the UK government is under fire for its controversial ‘Go Home’ campaign, urging ‘illegal migrants’ to ‘go home or face arrest’. These events and policies bring to light the importance and urgency of responding to both the plight of refugees and the securitisation of migration in very practical ways. It also prompts the need to conceptualise these issues in ways other than through discourses of threat, (in)security and/or victimisation. I would like to throw a different light on the issue of refugees and migration by focusing on the affirmative political practices of refugees in Malaysia. What I call the politics of (in)visibility, plays out at the intersection of theory and practice as well as at the juncture of governance and resistance.


In Malaysia, refugees are legally non-­‐existent. The apparent simplicity of this legal invisibility hides a complex field of practices. The Malaysian state is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Only two categories of migrants exist in Malaysian law: legal and illegal. The absence of the category of the refugee means that all undocumented migrants are considered ‘illegal migrants’ and subject to the Immigration Act, which allows for the detention, deportation and (coroporal) punishment of illegal migrants. The securitisation of migration by the Malaysia authorities in combination with the absence of legal rights leaves undocumented migrants in a very vulnerable position.

Yet, what struck me whilst working with refugees from Myanmar in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur was the affirmative character of their practices more than the hopelessness of their situation. For instance, refugees have set up community associations, advocacy organisations, churches and schools and many have found work. This more affirmative perspective emerges with the observation that the field of governmental practices stretches beyond state authorities as well as beyond official procedures and legislation. Of significance in this respect is the role of the UNHCR as both facilitator of resistance and governmental body of regulation and management.

The Malaysian state does not have an asylum system in place to register and administer refugees. The UNHCR has stepped in to offer assistance and support to refugees, including registration, status determination, documentation and resettlement. Relations among government, UNHCR and refugees are ambiguous and informal, as symbolised by the UNHCR identity card. Upon registration with the UNHCR, migrants receive a UNHCR identity card, granting them a kind of unofficial official status. Unofficial insofar as the identity card does not grant a refugee an official status under Malaysian law; and unofficial insofar as the card is no guarantee against arrest and detention – although, informally, the card should give a refugee this protection. In practice, the possession of an identity card appears to help reduce violence against refugees at least to a degree. It is official insofar as undocumented migrants gain the status of refugee in the eyes of the UNHCR as well as ‘the international community’. That is to say, the UNHCR does not merely make visible the existence of refugees in Malaysia, it produces the category of the refugee by dividing the field of ‘illegal migrants’ into refugees and economic migrants. A division denied by the government.

Identification as a refugee thus involves the simultaneity of resistance – against the denial of legal status by the government – and governmentalisation – by the UNHCR. The example of identity cards indicates that the legal and the illegal, as well as the visible and the invisible, cannot be captured in binary terms. A large domain exists in which the legal, the illegal, the formal and the informal are at play in a more complex manner. It is in this domain that refugees produce an affirmative politics of resistance. If their official illegality and invisibility leaves refugees in a vulnerable position, their occupation of the space in-­‐between – between the visible and the invisible also allows them to claim an identity other than that of either passive victim or dangerous other. The community associations and schools set up by various refugee communities constitute a clear example of practices that challenge the denial of affirmative subjectivity.

Attention to the detail of micro-­‐practices in the case of refugees in Malaysia thus challenges prevailing discourses that frame migrants and refugees either in terms of dangerous other or passive victim. It also challenges the assumption that governance and resistance can be captured in a binary terms. Rather, governance and resistance appear as a complexity of co-­‐constitutive practices. It is on the basis of their official illegality and invisibility, yet in the in-­‐between of (il)legality, (in)visibility and (in)formality, that refugees create an informal yet active politics both enabled and compromised by practices of governance.

Dr Leonie Ansems de Vries, visiting fellow at RCIR, is interested in research on international political theory; modern political thought; continental philosophy; the politics of life; the politics of resistance, especially in relation to governance; refugees and migration. You can listen to her podcast here: ‘On the Politics of Life and (in)visibility’.

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