Distraction Free Reading

“Legibility by Invitation”: Rohingya Refugees and the Struggle for Political Recognition

Once, in mid-August 2018 in a café tucked away in Klang Valley, Malaysia, Husin, my Rohingya research collaborator, and I sat with Fatimah, a young Rohingya woman. As it was after eight in the evening, I asked if she was worried that she might be detained by the police. “Ah Kak, that’s because the police just want money… if you know how to talk, you don’t have to pay bribe,” Fatimah explained to me in Malay before continuing, “kalau mereka mau tangkap saya, jemputlah [if they/police want to detain me, they are invited to do so]. Saya ada UN card, saya tak takut. [I have the UN card, I am not scared]” (emphasis mine). For Fatimah and other Rohingya refugees I have met in Malaysia, the notion of invite extends to their desire to be seen not just as refugees, but as Rohingya refugees. Rohingya refugees causally link their reduced fear of state authorities such as the police to their possession of the UN card – a document that many believe protects their “right” to be in Malaysia legally. Additionally, becoming visible to state authorities implies recognition of their status and presence in Malaysia. Visibility then paves the way for Rohingya to assert their political goal of becoming legible. This is important especially in the context where Rohingya fear the erasure of their identity due to Myanmar’s genocidal intent, impelling Rohingya interlocutors to cling more to their claims of being Rohingya. Affirming their existence as Rohingya, an ethnic identity rejected and denied by the Myanmar state, becomes a way to counter the ethnic genocide taking place in their homeland.

To many Rohingya refugees, it is not just a plastic object – it is a plastic card that Rohingya interlocutors like Zulaikha, a 20-year-old Rohingya woman, attached their lives to: “…without [the card in Malaysia] we are nothing… when I say the UN card is important, is because it saves people’s lives… we need to look after the card as our lives.” Yet, attaching their lives to the UN card also had its consequences when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Malaysia: becoming seen and visible as Rohingya transformed them into a biopolitical threat to the country’s sociopolitical and economic order. Documents thus reveal how legibility, as a project, needs to be located within the larger infra/structures of documenting and documentation, which then re/produces refugee subjecthood/subjectivities.

Becoming Refugees in Malaysia: From Illicit to Licit Subjects

Over the course of my fieldwork in Klang Valley, Malaysia, between 2017 to 2019, I discovered that there have been waves of Rohingya seeking asylum in Malaysia since the 1970s. The Rohingya are ethnic minorities who largely reside or came from Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine state, and whom the Myanmar authority doesn’t recognize as citizens. As of the end of October 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that there were over 100,00 Rohingya, making them the largest population of registered refugees in Malaysia. However, since Malaysia is not party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, there is a lack, or absence, of a refugee legal and administrative framework. Coupled with the Malaysian Immigration Act of 1959/63, refugees are thus denoted as “illegal immigrants” but who are registered with the UNHCR. This means that Rohingya refugees do not have access to the formal labor sector, education, and have limited medical access, with many having to work in the informal economy. This makes refugees vulnerable to exploitation by not only employers but also police extortions. Nonetheless, while the Malaysian state recognizes them as refugees, this recognition is also dependent on the politics and policies of the country at particular points in time.

An older couple sits side-by-side on a small red sofa, against a light blue wall. The man wears a green shirt and a plaid sarong. The woman wears a black hijab and a flowery skirt. In front of the sofa are two brightly colored pink and yellow rugs, with green and black patterns. Behind the sofa are a number of pieces of clothing, hung up and spread out. There is a white wall on one end of the room, and a window with a square grill at the other end.

In the photo are Kamal (62) and Bibi (61), who were forced to flee for their lives from Myanmar. In 2012, conflict broke out between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Kamal, Bibi and their teenage son came to Malaysia hoping to be resettled to another country. But they have been unable to even register with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – despite many attempts – and to date they remain undocumented. (Photo credit: The Spacemen, via Flickr)

Since 2012, however, the UNHCR’s authority was increasingly recognized by the state (UNHCR 2013) and the UN card gained prowess as the Rohingya crisis gained more international standing. As a result, many Rohingya interlocutors who had been in Malaysia for over a decade, shared their relief as authorities gradually recognize their status in the country. Jamal, for instance, had been in Malaysia since the 1990s when he fled after a Myanmar official threatened to prosecute him for his refusal to cooperate as an informant. In recollecting the traumatic ordeal of escaping Northern Rakhine State and the challenges of living as a refugee with limited rights in Malaysia, Jamal said, “Tapi dulu, mereka panggil kita haram… sekarang ada UN card, kita bukan lagi pendatang haram. Kita orang Rohingya. Rohingya refugee [But in the past, they [Malaysia] called us illegal… but now with the UN card, we are no longer illegal immigrants. We are Rohingya. Rohingya refugee].” Being termed a refugee recognized the traumatic ordeal that many like Jamal went through, a representation of their refugee journey that was suppressed when he was initially regarded as an undocumented migrant. The recognition of being not just a refugee but also a Rohingya, encapsulated in the card, enabled individuals like Jamal the capacity to articulate their plights.

From Pandemic to Endemic Malaysia: Oscillating Refugee Bodies

Since the start of my fieldwork in 2017, discourses surrounding Rohingya refugees have vacillated – from one of acceptance to one of rejection, dictated by the sociopolitical environment, including the Covid-19 pandemic, which changes the value of the UN card. The raging COVID-19 pandemic has infected not only people’s biological systems but also the perception of Rohingyas in Malaysia. Where once seen as victims of Myanmar’s genocidal regime deserving of sympathy, Rohingya refugees are now viewed as ungrateful refugees who “do not know their place in society.” Xenophobic and racist attacks berating Rohingya in Malaysia are widespread on social media, with petitions launched online to expel Rohingya refugees out of Malaysia. As many Malaysian social media users commented, Rohingya’s position in society was not validated by the UN refugee card since the latter are still considered as “undocumented.” The Movement Control Order (MCO), imposed by the Malaysian government in March 2020 in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, and the pandemic in Malaysia only served to exacerbate xenophobia against Rohingya refugees, further calling the legality / licitness of their bodies in Malaysia into question (Nursyazwani 2020).

For instance, in a Facebook post published on 21 April 2020 on (an unofficial) Malaysia Immigration News Update’s page, the author questioned the credibility of the UN card: “Is the UN refugee card that big in Malaysia?” This was in response to alleged incidents where a minority of Rohingyas went against the MCO by “flashing their UN card as if they are invincible” (Malaysian Immigration News Update 2020). The post then launched into a long tirade of how Rohingya refugees have taken for granted Malaysia’s hospitality (despite Malaysia being a non-signatory country) while undermining the value of the UN card. In drawing the inclusive /exclusive boundaries between deserving and non-deserving migrants in Malaysia, the UN card becomes emblematic of such borders as the Malaysian state and society attempt to exercise control over not only the pandemic but also the notion of belongingness in the country.

The pandemic, therefore, reveals the changing values of documents within the infrastructure which affords the UN card its efficacy. It also alludes to the double-edged nature of documents: on the one hand, having the UN card offers Rohingya the capacity to claim and legitimize their identity, pushing back against those who deny them their names; on the other hand, being too seen also means that occupying the Rohingya body subjects them to increasing surveillance. For instance, conversations with those on the ground and digital ethnography conducted in 2020 show how many Rohingya feared leaving their homes due to the real or perceived threat of deportation, increasing refugees’ precarity. Moreover, there were many instances when Rohingya refugees, once employed by Malaysians, were no longer welcomed to their workplace as employers were afraid of state reprisal, especially in light of increasing crackdowns at marketplaces / informal economy where Rohingya refugees are mostly employed. What happens then when one’s invitation to be seen backfires and places Rohingya refugees at more security risk?

Image consists of a silhouette of a young man who is facing the camera. Behind him are a small series of decorative plates on the wall. The image is in black and white, and the profile of the man is not sharply visible. The man appears to be staring at something slightly away from the camera.

Hassan was just a teenager when he left Myanmar. He has now lived in Malaysia since 2011 and is registered with UNHCR. He is occasionally stopped by police in the street. Some are sympathetic to his situation while others demand bribes. Still, Hassan is not resentful: “How can we dislike the police? This is not our country.” (Photo credit: The Spacemen, via Flickr)

Additionally, being seen as Rohingya now compared to pre-pandemic circumstances makes them easily exploited and targeted by the police and members of society. As an interlocutor shared, a few policemen they encountered had been more daring – even in public’s eyes, to extort and exploit Rohingya refugees who were perceived to be convicting a crime (e.g. riding a motorcycle without a license, employment in the informal economy). The pandemic also reveals how Rohingya’s invitation to the host state to see them as potentially political subjects is contingent on the country’s willingness to accept the invitation. The idea of the invitation is that power is on the side of the person inviting; but for the event to occur, the invited must also accept it. Moreover, the role of the invitee and invited in this case is inverse. As refugees within a host country, Rohingya refugees’ attempt to invite the host itself is made within conditions not of their making.  Hence, we see how Malaysians, as the invited, not only disrupted the invitation but also refused the role of recognizing and accepting Rohingya as subjects who belong.

The Conundrum of Legibility

Herein lies the paradox within biosurveillance: in bringing the self closer to state enumeration and documentation, one risks the threat posed to individual freedom. The paradox of legibility makes one question: is their aspiration for legibility a means of attaining “freedom”? Or is legibility a form of cruel optimism (Berlant 2011), especially for a group that had been rendered as bare life by the Myanmar state? The liminality of state existence for the Rohingyas pushed them to want to be seen by the state, causing them to turn to the card as a technology of self to invite legibility. Due to their refugee status materialized by the UN card, Rohingya refugees are able to lay claim on the right of return to Myanmar. At the same time, as events during the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, their political aspiration of becoming legible is very much premised on the host country’s desire to accept this invitation – to see Rohingya as il/licit bodies who have the “right” to be in Malaysia. The pandemic thus appears to have reversed the role of the host and guest here, disrupting Rohingya’s political aspiration of becoming recognized licit subjects while also alluding to the ways in which legibility operates within the infrastructure one is embedded in.

Yet, Rohingya took – and continue to take a chance at the possibility of making themselves governable, to become subjects deserving of care, for fear that, in the words of one of my Rohingya interlocutors – “[a]nother 20 years from now, if people don’t do anything, Rohingyas will be decimated from the world. And it’ll be in the history books that there was a group of people called the Rohingyas.”


Ahmed, Sara. 2010. “Orientations Matter.” In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics, edited by Diana Coole & Samantha Frost, 234 – 257. Duke University Press.

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press.

Feldman, Ilana. 2008. “Refusing Invisibility: Documentation and Memorialization in Palestinian Refugee Claims.” Journal of Refugee Studies, 21(4): 498 – 516.

Hull, Matthew S. 2012a. “Documents and Bureaucracy.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 41(1): 251–67.

—————– 2012b. Government of Paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan. University of California Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Najib Razak. 2020. “Isu Etnik Rohingya.” [“Rohingya Ethnic Issue”]. Facebook. April 23, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/najibrazak/posts/10156962192055952

Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2007. “Make-believe papers, legal forms and the counterfeit: Affective interactions between documents and people in Britain and Cyprus.” Anthropological Theory, 7(1): 79 -98.

Nursyazwani. 2020. “Moral Refugeeness, Malaysia and Covid-19.” Collecting Covid-19. Retrieved from: https://anthrocovid.com/6-2/contributions-from-malaysia/.

UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency. 2013. “Malaysia.” UNHCR Global Appeal 2013 Update. Accessed on April 15. Retrieved from: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/50a9f82da.pdf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *