Malaysia does not recognise refugee status despite hosting more than 180,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency as of December 2021. Without official status, refugees have no basic rights including the right to work. Rohingya ethnic, the largest community constituting 57 % of the overall registered refugee population in the country, are employed in shadow economy like any other forced migrant groups. The absence of work rights has forced them to face intensification of work by working harder with longer hours in precarious environments, thus they become what Muniandy coins ghost labour. Being the radical other, refugees are further being marginalised during the Covid-19 pandemic when xenophobia is rife, and citizens are prioritised over foreigners. In this seminar, I seek to explore the refugee’s experiential sense of dignity either negatively or positively since refugees have a multiplicity of experiences instead of being reduced to either victims or agents. On one hand, refugees may face structural barriers to decent employment that leads to an unliveable and unbearable life. On the other hand, on the contrary to the refugees’ bare life as claimed by Agamben, Rohingya refugees navigate their unique strategies in the pursuit of a meaningful, dignified and flourishing life. Since the Malaysian Government is currently considering granting refugees the legal right to work, this research is important to understand what work means to refugees. The data collected is based on ethnography conducted intermittently within two years in several locations in Peninsular Malaysia. 

About the Presenter

Aslam Abd Jalil is an anthropology PhD candidate at The University of Queensland. He holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public policy and business studies from the University of Malaya and the Australian National University respectively. He also completed a diplomacy training program on labour migration from UNSW. Currently, Aslam is researching refugee work rights in Malaysia, focusing on Rohingya and Acehnese communities. Through his research and activism, Aslam has been advocating for better refugee policies both in Australia and Malaysia since 2013.

About Anthropology Working Papers

The Working Papers in Anthropology seminar series provides a forum for dissemination of anthropological research and ideas among UQ scholars and invited researchers. All students are invited to attend the series and postgraduate students, from honours upwards, are invited to present their research. The aim is to provide opportunities for students, staff and those from outside UQ, to present and discuss their work in an informal environment.


Michie Building (09), The University of Queensland St Lucia Campus (also available via zoom)