Refugee Placemaking in Malaysia: A Conversation with Dr. Gerhard Hoffstaedter

Refugee Placemaking in Malaysia: A Conversation with Dr. Gerhard Hoffstaedter

Anthropologist Gerhard Hoffstaedter, APARC's Lee Kong Chan NUS-Stanford Fellow on Southeast Asia, discusses his research into the experiences of refugees in Malaysia and their interactions with international institutions.
Gerhard Hoffstaedter, Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow

In a world fraught with multiple overlapping crises, when millions of people are forcibly displaced due to war, violence, persecution, and the impacts of climate-related disasters, the plight of refugees serves as a poignant indicator of pressing societal challenges. Yet for Dr. Gerhard Hoffstaedter, our Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Southeast Asia, studying refugees and immigration policy is a pursuit of counterbalancing the disheartening reality faced by most refugees with instances of alternative scenarios that afford refugees the prospects of well-being.

Hoffstaedter, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Queensland, Australia, has spent the 2024 spring quarter of his fellowship at APARC. In this conversation, he shares insights from his research on the intricate dynamics surrounding refugee experiences, particularly in Malaysia, and calls for policies that confront the root causes of displacement. Emphasizing the structural and emancipatory dimensions of refugee placemaking, Hoffstaedter describes how, despite multiple crises complicating the resettlement of refugees in Malaysia, they are still able to create places of protection, earn a living, and, in rare cases, make meaningful homes for themselves. Listen to the conversation on our SoundCloud channel, below, or our YouTube channel.

Polycrisis and Permacrisis

Hoffstaedter recently presented his research at a seminar hosted by the Southeast Asia Program. In his talk, he framed the refugee condition within the context of Carl Jaspers’ notion of crisis as representing “a decisive point demanding change, where action is imperative for survival.” Drawing from liberation theology, Hoffstaedter underscored the imperative to transcend the status quo, especially in contexts where lives hang in the balance.

Central to his research approach is the recognition of the dual threats of permacrisis and polycrisis afflicting regions hosting significant refugee populations. With over 30 million refugees globally and millions more displaced, the crisis permeats societies with war, instability, and social upheaval, while the global north and multilateral institutions like the UNHCR often fall short of meaningful assistance.

Malaysia emerged as the focal point of Hoffstaedter’s research and fieldwork, given its status as a major destination for refugees, particularly from Myanmar. Hoffstaedter highlighted the Andaman Sea crisis of 2015, where the region grappled with the mass displacement of Rohingya refugees. This event catalyzed regional responses but also laid bare the complex interplay of policies and practices exacerbating the plight of refugees.

Tales from the Field

Through poignant personal narratives like that of Rahima, a Rohingya refugee, Hoffstaedter illustrated the harrowing realities faced by displaced individuals. Detention centers, precarious legal statuses, and exploitative conditions underscored the challenges refugees encounter in their quest for safety and dignity. Moreover, Hoffstaedter explained the tension between moral and legal obligations, juxtaposed against economic considerations. Malaysia's reliance on an informal workforce, including refugees, complicates the ethical landscape, wherein individuals must navigate legal barriers to access basic rights and opportunities.

The concept of placemaking, said Hoffstaedter, emerged as a conceptual tool to understand how refugees carve out spaces of belonging amidst adversity. Examples like Rohingya FC, a football club in Malaysia, underscore the agency and resilience of displaced communities in asserting their identities and fostering social integration. Similarly, the Chin community's rituals and communal gatherings in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown exemplify efforts to reaffirm cultural identities despite its legal limbo. These instances demonstrate the significance of representation and community-building in fostering a sense of belonging amidst displacement.

Hoffstaedter's research presents a holistic understanding of the refugee predicament, moving beyond the traditional crisis narrative to address underlying structural impediments. He calls for transcending the cycle of displacement through nuanced policy interventions and genuine solidarity. His discourse urges policymakers and stakeholders to confront the root causes of displacement, fostering inclusive societies where refugees are not merely tolerated but fully embraced as contributing members. In navigating the polycrisis of our times, Hoffstaedter's insights serve as a necessary call for compassionate action and systemic change.

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