Header for SEAD Episode with Joshua Low regarding the struggle of Malaysia refugees

The Struggles of Refugees in Malaysia

In this episode, we will talk about refugee struggles in Malaysia, Joshua Low’s previous and current work, and the broader issues at hand.


Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.

In Peninsular Malaysia there are over one hundred and eighty thousand refugees. Regardless of origin or identity, they all run into the same core problem of legal recognition. Malaysian authorities treat refugees as illegal, as there are no laws relating to their status. Not to mention the structural racism and xenophobia problems that are still rampant in the country.

One hundred and eighty thousand people. That’s the size of a small country, and that’s in Peninsular Malaysia alone. How do you expect to have a democracy when there are that many people not being legally recognised?

There is a level of international recognition, sure. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is allowed to operate. But because the country does not have a formal asylum system, the organisation’s activity is limited. Not to mention that Malaysia isn’t even a signatory country of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

All this forces refugees to rely on what Joshua Low, our guest for this episode, called “precarious goodwill: an unsustainable compassion which relies heavily on the efforts of civil society; never guaranteed, safe, nor formally rolled out as rules and laws.”


My name is Joshua. I am a social anthropologist by training, currently the force migration researcher at New Naratif. I used to be working in Ecuador on issues of rising xenophobia and issues of legal documentation, but I’ve since returned back to Southeast Asia. I grew up here in Malaysia and now I’m working on forced migration issues in the region.

That is Joshua Low, a Researcher in New Naratif. Joshua is a social anthropologist by training who recently completed fieldwork in Northern Ecuador researching xenophobia and the impact of legal documentation. Having grown up in Southeast Asia, he has since moved back and is now working on Forced Migration Research along with the Research Team here in New Naratif. Joshua’s broad areas of interest include: human rights, citizenship, home, and belonging.

In this episode, we will talk about refugee struggles in Malaysia, Joshua Low’s previous and current work, and the broader issues at hand.


Story of Zahra

Thank you, Joshua, it seems that you have been working on these issues for quite a while. I mean, forced migration and xenophobia and stuff like that are very much related, right? So let’s start with your first the article that you wrote for New Naratif last year, right.

Could you maybe explain briefly about that last publication? I think it was titled the Higher Education Labyrinth for Refugee Learners in Peninsular Malaysia. Can you tell us more about that?

Yeah, for sure. My article centres on the story of Zahra, who, despite having stellar grades in high school, struggled for many years to gain admission to university in Malaysia simply because of her status as a refugee who fled religious persecution from Pakistan.

Artwork by Xiao Ming Tang

The article then discusses the different struggles that refugee learners face to gain meaningful access to higher education. I name five big hurdles bureaucratic, institutional, financial, social and psychological.

I was inspired to write the article because while there has historically been conversations around primary and secondary school access of refugees in Malaysia, little has been written or discussed about higher education access.

I think that you need to concurrently talk about all three levels because continuity is important. I must say it was at once a heartbreaking and heartwarming piece to write. On the one hand, I took a piece together the labyrinth of challenges that refugee learners face in order to learn and study something that should be quite straightforward.

I wrote about issues like the climate of fear induced by a hostile immigration environment, the lack of resources, and the lack of continuous institutional support and welcome in some universities in Malaysia. No public universities currently accept refugees to study, and only a handful of the 400 plus private universities in Malaysia do so, and they do so quietly.

And at the same time, it was also heartwarming to speak to refugee learners, NGOs and university staff teachers who were creatively finding ways to build higher education access. On the ground, I saw solidarity, kindness and toughness little acts of resistance towards the status quo in the name of building education opportunities for all.

One initiative was the Fuji Higher Ed Scholarship, which provided scholarship opportunities for refugee learners. And another was CERTE, which stands for Connecting and Equipping refugees to Tertiary Education. And they help prepare, provide soft skills, networks and information needed to access higher education in the labyrinth that I wrote about. So that was the heartwarming part as well.

Three Broad Interests

Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, the listeners can, of course, will give them a link to your original article so they can find out more about that.

But describing it as once heartbreaking and heartwarming is really apt, I feel, because it’s kind of also the feeling that we get, like, the vibe that we get whenever we pursue these kinds of stories of marginalised groups in many areas. Not just refugees, right?

But I guess, why refugees? Why are you interested in this issue in refugees and in Xenophobia? And then how did you come to your research? Like, how did you come to Zahra and all the others in the article?

I think my interest really isn’t just about refugees. I think it’s much broader than that. My interests, I would name three broad interests. I’m interested in issues of human rights, citizenship and belonging.

And when you look into those broad categories, there are many issues that you can look at. And refugees are just one of the many iterations or conditions that is of interest to me. Because when you talk about displacement, you talk about migration, issues of belonging, it affects many people of different conditions, from stateless people to refugees to migrant workers.

I would say my broad interest is in all of that my interest really came from my time in studying abroad in Canada. This was many years ago, in 2015, when I was studying international development at that time, and I didn’t really know what issues I wanted to focus on.

But at the same time, during that season when I just arrived in university, there was a lot of political attention around the Syrian refugee crisis. And this was when there was a lot of mobilisation among Canadians demanding that the government accept more Syrian refugees. And it became a political and electoral issue.

I came in, I was an undergraduate student, and I started seeing this mobilisation on the ground from churches, civil society organisations, mosque, all coming together, and the university itself coming together and saying, we need to do something in response to the Syrian refugee situation.

And that really sparked my interest. And I got involved, and slowly but surely, I got involved in other issues of resettlement. Then later on, I had the opportunity to go to Ecuador to work in the borderlands.

And that’s really in light, in the context of the Colombian and Venezuelan situations, very different from Southeast Asia. But I just continue working on these issues. I would say my journey was really a combination of intentionality, intentional pursuits, but serendipity as well, things popping up and just pursuing them as they pop up. Hope that answers your question.

Latin America VS Southeast Asia

Yeah, definitely. But it’s interesting that you’ve been doing research and been involved in these issues in multiple places of the world. I mean, obviously they’re different.

But can you in your experience, in your observation, how are these issues different from the Syrian refugees and the condition in Canada and also in Ecuador and then in Southeast Asia, like vastly different places of the world?

What primary ways do you think they’re different?

Ecuador and Latin America has a very progressive and developed legal landscape compared to Southeast Asia. If I may just do broad generalisations when it comes to these issues. But here we are talking just solely in terms of the legal frameworks. So I’m not going to talk about practice yet.

The legal frameworks in Latin America when it comes to refugee and forced migration issues, it’s very progressive, very protection oriented.

In Ecuador, when I was working there, for example, the Constitution of Ecuador proclaims the equal rights of citizens and non citizens. It proclaims things like the progressive extinction of the notion of the alien notion of the non citizen. It talks about things like universal citizenship, so really challenging the nation state in some sense, but also challenging the idea of the citizen.

Of course, in Southeast Asia, we don’t see any of that happening. The countries that I work mostly in or I think about a lot when it comes to refugee issues, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand are not even signatories to the refugee Convention.

And so it’s vastly different when you talk about legal frameworks. Now the question of practice is more complicated. I wouldn’t say just because you have these legal frameworks, refugees and migrants are necessarily protected.

My research was on Xenophobia, and so you have all these progressive legal framework, but you can still have quite an anti migrant public that doesn’t correspond with what’s written on paper. So that’s a strong big caveat there. Yeah.

In Southeast Asia, I think, when it comes to practice, there’s a lot of gray areas and discretion that works both ways. When it comes to protecting the nunces and the refugee, there’s a lot of things that can happen behind the scenes, not written in law for good and for bad.

So, for example, when you look at the higher education situation for refugees in Malaysia, discretion plays a big role, meaning that universities do sometimes accept refugees, but they do so behind the scenes without announcing them to the whole world, to the government.

But that means that information cannot be widely accessible to refugees. But that also means that refugees can in some sense access universities. And when it comes to the role of policymakers, I sense that in the Malaysian context, the government doesn’t always want to do overt promises and overt policy changes, but then they may be willing to do things behind the scenes, close doors.

So the role of discretion is a big factor in shaping one’s protection or not, if that makes sense.

Misconception of Refugee

Yeah, that’s also one of the most interesting parts of your article that I find. Like lots of universities, some universities actually do accept them, as you mentioned. It’s just that very hush hush, right?

We can’t really let people find out. And also the status of the refugees themselves among the students and among the lecturers, among the professors. Also, they’re not made public, right?

It’s just generally kept a secret that, oh, this student is a refugee, and stuff like that, right Because again, coming back to the idea of Xenophobia, it’s interesting for me that there are lots of mobilization in both ways, both directions, in both political spectrums.

There are people who mobilise for better acceptance of refugees, but also yeah, just Xenophobic people really pushing back against those ideas.

And you mentioned something very interesting, which I will let you talk about in the personal experience of Zahra in your article about how people frame discrimination as if we are being discriminated by the refugee.

That kind of political idea, which is strange to me, but yeah, maybe. Can you tell us more about that?

Yeah, just a recap there. Zahra shared how a student in this university that she was in without knowing her refugee background, that he wanted to kick out all refugee students because he saw accepting refugees as an act of discrimination.

What is peculiar about this is that this is in a private university, one and number two, there’s this misconception that if you provide a spot for someone else, then you lose your spot. But this is not the case. Sources of funding are diverse.

There’s this idea I think I wrote about this in the article as well, of false scarcity. That it’s a zero sum game, it’s a misconception that it’s a zero sum game, that one spot loss means one spot or one spot game means one spot loss.

Where when education, having someone one extra person sitting in the room doesn’t change the cost dramatically. But what is peculiar about this is that it does touch on the what’s peculiar about this statement is that it’s framed around discrimination, and this person who framed it as discrimination was of Chinese ethnicity. And I think that’s a very key point to notice is that in the Malaysian context, ethnicity race are very salient.

The ideas of intergroup competition is very ingrained in the Malaysian context. And there are those who feel that the affirmative action policies in Malaysia are discriminating against them. That favors the Bumipuetra and the indigenous people instead of minority groups.

And so in that context, there are people who feel that they are discriminated against. That then gets transferred to this refugee context. And I think that’s unfortunate because education is a right for all, and it shouldn’t just be this group, one group versus another group kind of thing. And we should be trying to build access for all, regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds or nationality.

But, yeah, it is a real sentiment on the ground that anyone advocating for refugee issues would need to be quite mindful about that these sentiments are there and address them hit on or really explain what the conditions and situations refugee learners are in for more understanding.

Current Status Quo

Yeah, because I can imagine that being a refugee, especially after reading your article there, they’re just layers and layers of challenges, right?

What is it just simply even when they’re already accepted, like, how do you make friends? How do you deal with the racial tensions? How do you deal with that divide? So I’ll come back to that point later, though.

But earlier on, and also in the article, you mentioned five points, five points of concerns that are raised by the refugee learners and that the government can address, which are bureaucratic, financial, institutional, but also social and psychological, right? And this is, of course, it hits across multiple dimensions.

But what I want to ask is that how is it going now, though? Sometime obviously, months have passed since you last interviewed Zahra and again since the comparison that you made with Ecuador, with other countries who have all of these legal frameworks ready.

Do you think that Malaysia, or maybe like other parts of Southeast Asia, are moving towards legal frameworks that better address these five concerns?

Or do you think these five concerns we shouldn’t worry about legal frameworks. Let’s just address these five concerns first with, for example, I don’t know, collaborations between refugee run and refugee supporting organisations and stuff like that.

Or what do you think we need to move to address these kinds of concerns and how do you think things are going right now? Where are we moving towards?

So I can start with the question on how are things going on now? And then I would come back to the question of what needs to be done as of now.

On the policy front, it’s generally still status quo. Malaysia had a change in government late last year, but they have not made any public policy stance on refugee issues so far in general, let alone the issue of refugee education.

I do hope that there is openness in this new government to build and enable higher education access of refugees. And they can do so simply by providing refugee study visas or just allowing decreeing that Malaysian public universities can accept refugees, can accept or enroll refugees.

There is also work that can be done on a primary and secondary school level by providing more recognition support to alternative learning centers. These are centers that are run by NGOs or refugees or also to open up access some level of access of public schools to refugee learners.

It is important to point out like unlike Thailand and Indonesia, countries that also host significant populations of refugees, Malaysia stands out in the region for a strict policy of not allowing refugees to enroll in either primary or secondary school.

Thailand has an education for all policy that allows all children, regardless of data, to access 15 years of free education, primary and secondary. And Indonesia, there is growing primary school access for nuncies and children through government decree.

So we can follow the examples of Indonesia and Thailand to provide and protect the future generations of all nationalities of all education levels, and Malaysians alike, when it comes to building long term higher education access.

What we can do so without just working on the policy level, but working on the ground level with institutions and universities. I think what we need to do is to actually build allies through sustained engagement with and within university campuses. Because you can have a policy one day that allows refugees to study and that would be great.

But if you don’t have allies within universities, then the policy will not also work well. I think you need to work on a policy level concurrently on the institutional level, work with the universities that are currently already accepting refugees and those that are not to work with them to open up access.

Build relationship with students, professors, staff, people who can be strong and thoughtful voices to build higher educational access regardless of one’s migration status.

And that could happen in different ways. For example, universities or student bodies could create courses around refugee issues for students to gain knowledge around these issues. NGOs or civil society can cite mouse student councils to work on these issues.

Or networks can be formed with like minded and committed academics to build higher education access for all. So I think there are ways to build sustained engagement. And I think the eventual goal of doing all these engagement is to build what I would call like, campuses of sanctuary.

So it’s not just to build access, but to build places of welcome, places of engagement, of equality for all who are fleeing war, violence and persecution, to have meaningful and welcome places to learn.

So, yeah, I think there are many ways, and I think I’ve listed a few there.

Why Refugees are in Malaysia?

Yeah, it’s interesting also that you mentioned about how we need courses so that people are more aware of the refugee issues, because I think we can have access. I mean, obviously we would need to have access, but to get to the next step of having it as places of safe places, places that are welcoming.

And all these things that you mentioned, there’s kind of like a shift of mindset, a shift of point of views that’s needed, especially in the context of rife xenophobia and racism and all of these racial tensions in the Malaysian society itself.

I think it’s very important to frame refugees and have people know what refugees are and what they come from and the historical context of refugees, so that people don’t end up seeing refugees as just another.

As you mentioned, accepting refugees will be discriminatory to certain ethnic groups in Malaysia because they’re taking away our jobs, right. That’s always the conservative, the Xenophobic, the bigoted points of view there that are unfortunately still drive in Malaysia and elsewhere, but building this knowledge.

I want to ask you, though, why are there so many refugees in Malaysia? Maybe you can give a bit of the historical background, a bit of the context in Malaysia specifically, because in your case it was like Peninsular Malaysia.

So, yeah, what is it, why there and what’s the background there, politically and economically?

Yeah, the question of why refugees are in Malaysia is an extremely important question. And migration is complex, it’s layered, and I think we need to be better to break down the why people are in Malaysia. So let me give it a shot.

There are over 180,000 refugees in Malaysia, quite a sizeable population, and they include people from Myanmar, the Rohingya, the Chin, the Kachin and other ending minority groups from Myanmar. There are Pakistanis, Afghans, Sri Lankans from South Asia, Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis and Palestinians from West Asia and Somalians from the Horn of Africa.

So refugees, the first thing you need to know is that they come from very diverse places and regions around the world and they seek refuge for different reasons, including the fear of persecution, war or extreme socioeconomic harm. The majority of refugees in Malaysia are from Myanmar, so maybe I can speak a little bit about that and provide a brief overview.

The flight and the flights of people from Myanmar are complex and layered, but we can broadly trace them back to three ongoing, overlapping and ethnic based struggles in the country first, struggles over national belonging.

Number two, struggles over land and resources. And capital plays a big role there and three, struggles over power.

When you talk about struggles over national belonging you can think about the Rohingya who are the largest refugee group in Malaysia. They are also predominantly Muslims. They are in Malaysia because they’ve historically suffered religious persecution the denial of citizenship and violence in the hands of Myanmar’s ultra nationalist state and armed forces, the Tamada in Rakhine State.

So that’s the western part of Myanmar, the Rohingya, are trapped in what a scholar has called a multipolar conflict between themselves, the minority Buddhist Rakhines and the majority Bermans where each group have historically, quote unquote, mutually existential fears and mistrust of one another.

And the plight of the Rohingya can also be traced to Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law which straight out deprived them of the place in the country by excluding them from the official 135 national races.

So all of this against the backdrop of all this conflict of statelessness of violence there was a military crackdown that caused the exodus of 700,000 Rohingya to the neighboring Bangladesh and other countries and other ethnic and religious Christian minority groups in Myanmar as well.

In the borderlands of Myanmar, like the Chin, Kachin and Karen have also clashed with the military and government which have forced them into exile in the countries.

So there is a broader context of the struggle of national belonging in Myanmar the question of who belongs in the Burmese state, who should belong and what rights they have. And in that context, that has caused displacement and dispossession.

The second struggle is also over land and resources. You can’t talk about belonging without talking about capital as well which is also an important context that I don’t think is often highlighted when it comes to displacement that when Aung San Suu Kyi came into power in a time of rapid liberalisation of the country.

There was also plenty of capital coming into the borderlands of Myanmar and that continues on today with the Hunter regime because at that time there was land confiscation for mega projects in the region in the borderland areas for oil, gas production pipelines, hydroelectric dams, mining and seaports as well as special economic zones. And all of this have also caused dispossession and displacement of minority groups.

So, yes, there was a lot of resources coming into the country but a lot of those resources were going to specific people at the same time also dispossessing and displacing people in the region. So that’s another big factor of why people are fleeing.

And finally, the struggle over power is around who rules and who has autonomy in these regions. So because of the questions of national belonging there has also been ethnic arm groups that have taken up arms in the borderland regions in the name of self determination, in the name of autonomy and cultural rights.

And they have also clashed with the military who are also vying for power in these region and the Kudeta against the Myanmar government in 2021 has also intensified the exodus of people from Myanmar.

At the same time, it’s also important to recognise that the nature of these conflicts and the conflicts in the region are also changing ah, because of new alliances and promises between the exile national unity government, the NUG, and the ethnic minorities.

So I’m providing all of this information so that readers or listeners can know that it is a complex situation that people are fleeing, but they are fleeing situations where that tells us difficult situations that tells us that they need help and protection even more.

It is against this backdrop of violence and persecution that refugees from Myanmar are forced to flee to Malaysia and then the other groups for Pakistanis, they are narcissist fleeing religious persecution.

There are Ahmadi Muslims, Christian Pakistanis, whose freedom of religion is denied in Pakistan. For the Somalians, you have to think about the 30 plus year civil war and political instability in that region. For Syrians, it’s in the context of the Syrian civil war that broke out twelve years ago.

For Afghans, you’re looking at a war in Afghanistan that really started in the 1970s but continue today and of course intensified after the Taliban offensive in 2021. So yeah, that’s a little bit of the overview of why people have led complicated.

What Needs to be Done?

Yeah. Wow, thank you for laying out all of that. It is very complicated. I mean, obviously refugees aren’t just it doesn’t just happen, it’s a symptom of a wider global phenomena of increasing violence, wars and socioeconomic harm and land grabs, power struggles and all of these things as if as you’ve, as you’ve laid out in your in in what in what you just in what you just laid out.

But also, first of all, I guess, do you think people are generally simply not aware of this? Do they not want to know? Do they like, do most people? Because yeah, I can imagine if people just don’t care or just they don’t want to know, or even if they know, they’re just going to say, yeah, but that’s a problem for another country.

Why should that be a problem for my country, for my university, for my institution? If the people there don’t have resources, then what gives them the right to take our resources? Because we hear all of these things a lot, right?

What is the best way to address these? Do you think? Should there just be simply education or a more civil discussion or should there be a better organising, mobilising, just building all of these initiatives in a much more stronger, make stronger demands to the government, for example, or yeah.

What do you think needs to be done?

I think the first thing that we all need to agree upon is that people are fleeing for a reason. And that whether we like it or not, people need to find refuge. And no matter what policies that we have to deter migration, to stop migration, it won’t work. Especially when survival is on the line. It won’t work if what you need is food on the table.

And I think we can all empathise and understand that, that you can have the strongest deterrence policies, have a deportation regime, have immigration detention centers, but you are not going to stop people who are desperate for survival and for sanctuary.

And so we need to start from there. We need to agree that that is the reality and put ourselves in the shoes of refugees themselves.

I remember when I was working in Ecuador in the borderlands, and I was meeting ethnic border zones, professors, professionals, people who journalists, politicians, people from the military, people from all walks of life.

But many of them had university degrees. Many of them had similar qualifications or more qualifications that I did. This was in the borderlands of Ecuador. And this is because the Venezuelan refugee population is highly educated.

But even with all of that, their country collapsed and they still had to flee. What I’m saying here is that when I was there in the borderlands, I realized, oh my God, this can happen to me. This is not something that happens elsewhere. It can happen to me.

If there is political instability in my country or economic instability that leads to other kinds of crisis, I could be a refugee.

And I think what I’m saying there is twofold. One is we need to accept that people will migrate no matter what. Number two is that we could also end up in that situation.

And when we start accepting that people who you can’t stop migration, then what you need to do is to then coordinate and govern, figure out what is best to do for all to protect those who are migrating, but to also coordinate migration in a way that also benefits the whole society, if I may say so.

And there are many ways we can do that. It’s looking at labor shortages, labor gaps where refugees can fill those spots, finding ways in which refugee communities and hosts and local populations can work together in concert in different projects and programs.

You have to remember that refugees are generally very resilient people, people who have a lot of skills, knowledge, experience, whether it’s from their migration situation or from their countries of origin.

And I think host societies who see that will really benefit by mobilising and coordinating with the skills that are coming to the region, so coordination is key.

I think that is actually one way you could create a win win for all, even in the university context, to address the issues of the sense of discrimination.

When refugees actually come to our universities, they actually enrich the university experience. They make the university experience more internationalised. They bring in their knowledge, their culture, their skills, and they transform the learning experience as well.

And for universities themselves who do open up access, they benefit from having a wider range of alumni from different international, different countries in the world. So that’s a win win if only we see it that way and we create policies to do that.

That’s my response and that’s how I think education plays a big role as well, but I don’t think education is the so there is this narrative that to address refugee issues we need to inform and educate more.

I think that’s one part of the story, but it’s not the full story or the way that we can actually reach people and change minds and change hearts. It’s also to meet people who are, quote unquote xenophobic where they’re at as well and to also understand where they’re coming from.

I think there are Grievances there that it’s not related to necessary to refugees. Sometimes it’s Grievances related to not being cared for by the state, not having their needs met that then overflows to refugees. I think those Grievances need to be acknowledged and met as well.

So it’s not just about education, but it’s also trying to understand where people who harbour anti migrant sentiments, where they’re coming from and meet halfway or meet where they’re at. So that’s another thing I think we ought to do.

Community & Coalition

Yeah, I think a lot of the conservative ideology or conservative mindset hinges on taking very familiar pain points from society and the Grievances, as you mentioned, and just projects them onto a minority group like migrants and refugees, right?

And I think that’s why it’s so easy for it’s so easy for people to dislike or to be against migrants.

But again, as you mentioned, also, maybe another way to put it is that it’s like trying to solve homelessness with hostile architecture, right? You’re not going to do that. You’re not going to solve the issue, you’re just going to make life a whole lot more difficult for a lot of people.

And that’s why, again, conversations are needed. But of course we shouldn’t stop there. We shouldn’t stop at the it’s one part of the issue, one part of the story, as you mentioned, like getting people to know about refugees and stuff like that.

But I want to get your opinion more and maybe your targets and what you believe needs to be done aside from just knowledge building in order to create change.

What do we need to do exactly? Like, how do we need to mobilise? What kind of angles do we need to approach this by?

I think the other two elements besides knowledge building, which is an important pillar as well, is community building and coalition building. I think when we talk about community building, I think of what’s happening on a grassroots level, what’s happening in your surroundings, your neighborhood, your schools, your universities, churches, mosques, temples.

And for listeners out there, these are spaces that you could be in, but I would then encourage there to actually open your eyes, to see who are in these spaces and how you can actually interact. If there are migrants and refugee populations there, how you treat them on a day to day basis, how you relate to them, speak to them, whether all of that really does matter.

And from there, you know, build communities, friendships, partnerships, projects together. And I think, you know, these, these could be political projects, could be social projects. But I think those everyday spaces of interactions are very important when it comes to helping others feel that they are part and parcel of the fabric of society.

So, yeah, community building is important. And I think coalition building, coalition building with, particularly with refugee led and refugee run organisations, there is incredible leadership and amazing mobilisation among refugee communities.

What they need isn’t necessarily more NGOs, but simply resources and support, direct resources and support to what they are already doing for their communities.

I think historically in the humanitarian spaces, let’s fund more NGOs, more humanitarian organisations, because we can do good for refugees.

But then refugees themselves are doing incredible work. Why not just direct funds, directly, resource them and work with them existing initiatives? And by resourcing, I mean it doesn’t just mean funding, but also trainings, solidarity, recognition, and also providing networks to refugee, refugee led organisations.

And I think some of these things are not just applicable in the religion context, but also beyond.

What’s Next?

Okay, thank you, Joshua. Maybe for one last question. What can the listeners expect from your own personal research moving forward?

Like maybe you can hint us a little bit on the issues you’re tackling and maybe if they can also participate in one of these initiatives that you just mentioned, or if you have other resources that the listeners can maybe feel more educated or empowered in.

Yeah, just feel free to talk about that.

As New Naratif’s migration researcher, I am working on a few projects and the immediate project that I’m working on is on child detention. So the issue of child detention is something that is very close to my heart and it’s something that hasn’t really been addressed in the Malaysian context.

So I’m writing an explainer on that. That’s a work in progress.

And the other topics and teams that I’m thinking about is one of them is related to media responsibility when it comes to writing about migration and refugee issues, what ethical considerations should the media have in portraying and representing refugee lives and these issues.

And finally, a lot of my thinking now is around refugee leadership and how we can better support that. So, yeah, these are some teasers. I won’t go into too many details. I think listeners ought to come to our upcoming events, whether it’ll be democracy classrooms or Ba.Ca events around the topics that will be written.

Thank you so much, Joshua. So I’m pretty sure the listeners would love to talk about these issues more or like, know more about these issues and participate in the discussions, hopefully, which we will provide a link in the show notes as to your past research and also your upcoming ones.

And again, they can just follow our social media channels and stuff like that. But it has been an amazing discussion, getting your insights, getting to know your perspectives on these issues.

You’re doing very important work and we’re really happy to get to know you better in this kind of movement, building on these very important issues that are global in a way, but also very much regional, that lots of solidarity are needed, like these issues.

You’re working specifically in Malaysia right now, but it’s a very global and important issue, right? So, yeah. Thank you so much, Joshua, for speaking with us.

Thank you for having me and it was a great conversation, great questions. I love to continue engaging further with listeners with New Naratif and beyond.


And that wraps up our discussion with Joshua Low. The refugee issue is a very complex problem, and it’s one that will require all our strengths to tackle, from knowledge-building, community-building, to coalition-building. You can share this podcast, Joshua Low’s research, which you can find on newnaratif.com, and other resources to your circles.

You can support refugee leaderships and refugee-run organisations. You can contribute to Fugee in fundraising campaigns for their higher education scholarships for refugees.

You can also reach out to CERTE to offer refugee learners mentorship or workshops by writing to [email protected].

My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.



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