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Annisa Dina Amalia

“We’ve all seen the photographs of these refugees. 
We’ve seen them hanging their emaciated limbs off the sides of their boats.
We’ve seen the scars on their backs, earned in fights over scarce food and water. We’ve read their harrowing stories of their being abandoned at sea, rejected by one government after another.”
-Tahmima Anam

How do we imagine the Andaman Sea crisis? Perhaps what comes to mind is the horrific image of thousands of people fleeing their countries, risking their lives – many were stranded at sea while the fortunate ones arrived at ‘foreign’ countries. When this infamous event unfolded in 2015, more than 25,000 persons departed Myanmar and Bangladesh, following clashes between Rohingya and Myanmar military groups. They fled the country by boat and went towards Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. It is believed that hundreds of refugees drowned at sea and lost their lives during the journey, and many of those who managed to disembark were confined to shelters and detention centers.

In response to this tragedy, various humanitarian discourses were conveyed by mass media and humanitarian organisations. Human Rights Watch, for instance, contextualised the plight of Rohingya ‘boat people’ by starting from the hardships they endured during the dangerous journey, which continued after they disembarked and were taken to jungle camps where they faced various further types of abuse. Similarly, the ABC reproduced the narrative of the Rohingya – whom the United Nations consider ‘the world’s most persecuted people’ – as victims of structural violence at the hands of Myanmar authorities. 

Amid these humanitarian narratives, however, the region is highly criticised for its inadequate response to the crisis. When the events first unfolded, neighbouring countries in the region opted for a ‘turn back the boats’ tactic and essentially played a game of ‘human ping pong’. Decisive action was taken only after heightened pressure from local and international communities, including Acehnese fishermen who rescued and extended hospitality to thousands of refugees ashore. Emergency bilateral and multilateral meetings were held, yet they failed to result in a strategic and comprehensive response. While they acknowledged the importance of rescue and search operations, they conflated the humanitarian issue with a security-focused view – refugee flows were entangled with the irregular migration trajectories. ASEAN tended to overlook this matter and relegate the issue into the Bali Process, a regional forum initiative focusing on a joint strategy against people smuggling and human trafficking. In its review of the region’s response to the crisis, and a subsequent Co-Chairs’ Statement, the Bali Process clearly linked the crisis to the prevailing problem of smuggling and trafficking networks in the region. This approach, unfortunately, distorts the focus of the problem from humanitarian crisis to the issue of national and border security. 

As the humanitarian-security nexus characterises the regional response towards the crisis, Rohingya refugees risk being stripped of their agency – as if their identities must fall into one of two categories: victims or criminals. This binary potentially overlooks the diverse and dynamic realities refugees have experienced beyond the contexts of humanitarian emergency (which emphasises their plight and traumatic journeys) and security (which emphasises their relationship to the crimes of smuggling and trafficking practices). This essay attempts to problematise this binary logic by deconstructing the media narratives on the Andaman Sea crisis, and to provide an alternative view on how we should perceive refugees – without removing their autonomies. 

Refugees and the politics of representation

The dichotomous portrayal of forced displacement has been a central issue in academic literature. The multidisciplinary character of migration studies allows scholars to investigate the problematic nature of the international refugee regime. The regime has been constantly questioned for its ‘representation politics’. Over decades, migration scholars depict the regime as the ‘regime of representation’, emphasising how ‘experts’ in the global North possess control over how ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ should be represented.1 Thus, humanitarian discourses in the context of forced displacement are very much shaped by a Northern gaze. These discourses embody the images of ‘helplessness’ and ‘loss’ of refugees through visual representations. Despite its potential to mobilise public empathy, the underlying problem with this representation is its practice of dominating and silencing refugee voices. Malkki, for example, stresses that ‘humanitarian practices tend to silence refugees’, while Rajaram highlights the failure of humanitarian organisations to provide access for refugees to speak for themselves.2  

In contrast to the humanitarian approach stands the security approach to forced displacement. This security-focused approach is not new; the view of migration as threat has become mainstream in national policies around the world, especially since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.3 According to some scholars, securitisation of migration is widely used by countries in the global North as a strategy of containment, to halt migration flows from the global South in the name of national security.4 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also implicated in this strategy. As Scheel and Ratfisch criticise, UNHCR exerts power by classifying migrants as ‘refugees’ or ‘bogus asylum seekers’.5 With this strategy, the interests of donor countries in exploiting the discourses on illegality and security to legitimise their securitisation policies are well-served. In the case of the Rohingya, Downman and Ubayasiri examine media coverage of the May 2015 crisis which focused heavily on people smuggling and trafficking, obscuring both types of migration and, thus, rendering the refugee crisis securitised while refugees are addressed with a ‘victim-shaming’ approach.6 Similarly, Michael Grewcock studies how Australian media coverage of the same event portrayed Rohingya refugees as boat people asking the help of criminal gangs, thus justifying the practice of interception of boats attempting to reach Australian territory.7  

A number of migration scholars have begun to challenge the prevailing dichotomous representation of refugees, particularly in media studies. For example, the Popular Communication journal has recently released a special issue on ‘Refugee Socialities and the Media’, in which several authors pinpoint the potential of media, especially popular and digital-based media, to defy hegemonic images of refugees. The portrayal of refugees as ‘villains’ and European audiences as ‘heroes’ in videogames,8 for example, has been countered by the establishment and strengthening of social solidarity for refugees through increasing popular communication channels, such as documentary arts9 and social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter.10 Hickerson and Dunsmore, as well as Steimel, also find a more positive media discourse of refugees by drawing attention to refugees’ own narratives.11 However, questions emanate as to how these discourses recognise the inherent social-political dynamics of refugee crises. It is clear that what we need is an alternative representation which takes into account the complex, dynamic realities of refugee experiences and emotions.

Frightening Experiences, Distressing Narratives

The narratives examined in this essay are selected from six media organisations, consisting of two mainstream international media outlets (The New York Times and Reuters) and four prominent Southeast Asian-based media outlets (The Bangkok Post, The Straits Times, New Straits Times, and The Jakarta Post). Analysing the narratives through a qualitative analysis software called NVivo revealed that humanitarian discourses employing notions of ‘vulnerability’ and emergency dominated the coverage of the Andaman Sea ‘crisis’. Most narratives reflect the perilous migratory passage Rohingya refugees had to go through in order to escape persecution in Myanmar. For example:

Raped, torched and traumatized, the Rohingya minority fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh are in dire need of basic necessities like food, water, shelter and medical assistance. As the number of refugees continues to rise… [making it one of the most notorious] … humanitarian crises in recent memory. (The Bangkok Post 2017)

Other statements reveal the massive number of people living within the confines of shelters and camps:

About 32,000 Rohingyas are sheltered in camps administered by the United Nations, but hundreds of thousands more live undocumented in squalid, makeshift camps or scattered around southeast Bangladesh. (The New York Times 2016)

In these narratives, (Rohingya) refugees are portrayed as vulnerable victims. Other words used interchangeably include: ‘persecuted’, ‘desperate’, ‘helpless’, ‘mistreated’, ‘victim’ and ‘vulnerable’. These narratives reinforce not only the ‘neutral’ images of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘helplessness’, but also representations that perceive refugees as inferior, weaker and without agency.12 

This state of vulnerability further bolsters refugees’ passive character as it highlights their need and dependence on external assistance. This narrative is exemplified by the following statements:

‘With no way to support themselves, the Rohingya refugees are completely dependent on aid.’ (The New York Times 2017)

‘Furthermore, only the most vulnerable people are put forward for resettlement in the first place: survivors of torture, and women and children at risk…who are most in need of protection, we can be sure that they deserve the safety, shelter and fresh start…’ (The New York Times 2017)

The aforementioned narratives leave us with a number of problematic implications. Rendering refugees as passive victims forces us not only to amplify their inferiority and speechlessness vis-à-vis their humanitarian ‘saviors’, which further neglects their agency, but also to overlook the multifaceted realities of refugee experiences. 

When refugees’ vulnerability is narrowly interpreted as post-conflict trauma and desperation during emergency, humanitarian actors will tend to form ‘layers of vulnerability’ which will translate into ‘selective’ assistance – rendering other types of vulnerability invisible. The International Organization Migration (IOM)’s humanitarian programs in response to the Andaman Sea crisis clearly reflect the prioritisation of ‘pregnant women’ and ‘unaccompanied minors’, as well as the provision of emergency support such as healthcare and household services. Meanwhile, refugee experiences involve complexities beyond physical and mental disorder during crises – economic and social well-being being only a few examples. As Olliff’s research on refugee diaspora communities finds, refugees’ narratives on vulnerability hardly refer to suffering bodies, but more to the social ruptures they have experienced, for instance the loss of family and feelings of alienation in a new environment.13 The existing liberal humanitarian governance has allowed actors to reinforce the paternalistic character of humanitarian strategy,14 by which they exercise their power to control and decide what kind of assistance is appropriate for humanitarian ‘objects’. Considering these impacts, the humanitarian narratives that are supposed to relieve refugees’ trauma can be more distressing than the asylum-seeking experience itself. 

‘Illegal’ people in the making?

In line with the shifting towards security discourses in the international refugee regime, media narratives also reinforce the view that forced displacement cannot be isolated from the problems of people smuggling and human trafficking. For example, the following types of narratives are frequently employed:

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence in Myanmar are "at the mercy" of human traffickers… (Reuters 2017)

People are willing to pay up to US$200 (6,620 baht) to smugglers, who converted fishing boats into small vessels, and brought them to Thai shores as a transit point during the journey to Malaysia. (The Bangkok Post 2015)

Besides smuggling and trafficking issues, Rohingya refugees are also portrayed as violent and connected with terrorist networks, thus potentially posing threats to the safety of local communities. The following two excerpts support this view:

Analysts say the violence could galvanize ARSA members and supporters huddled in the refugee camps and among those Rohingya still in Myanmar… (Reuters 2017)

He said he feared that the Rohingya people have a tendency to be violent, and that there could be conflicts with locals due to differing religious beliefs. (The Bangkok Post 2013)

The above narratives can serve to justify the exclusionary approach taken by some countries in the region in the face of the Rohingya refugee exodus. Narratives focusing on the problems of trafficking and terrorism fit well with discourses on illegality and criminality, which are well played by government authorities, including in Southeast Asia, as illustrated below:

‘…take steps to stop further “illegal entry of Myanmar nationals” and to prevent existing refugees from “mixing in with local populations.”’ (The New York Times 2017)

The perception that refugees are ‘illegal’ migrants without proper identification documents creates concern for Southeast Asian countries, particularly when this ‘illegal’ status is accompanied by the fear of terrorism. Therefore, this kind of narrative encourages governments to consider refugees as threats to national security. Policies undertaken in response can range from border militarisation to prevent entry to the country’s territory, to violent arrests, detention and forced repatriation of ‘illegal’ migrants who succeed in crossing the border.15   

Meanwhile, an Asia Pacific-focused multilateral forum which addresses the issue of irregular migration, the Bali Process, reproduces the strong language of securitising migration. The Bali Process is an Australian- and Indonesian-led conference on people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crime, which was established to address the regional problem of irregular/undocumented migration.16 One cannot expect that governments’ responsibility to protect refugees will be fulfilled through a forum prioritising cooperation on border control, law enforcement and documentation fraud. While its member countries uphold a commitment to combatting people smuggling and human trafficking, they tend to ignore the complex and obscure realities of irregular migration. As Missbach and Sinanu suggest, people smugglers in Indonesia are mostly former refugees who have settled in host communities and created networks to assist their families. Furthermore, these businesses are sustained by the increasing demand for smugglers caused by more restrictive migration control measures between Indonesia and Australia.17 

Victim or villain?: In Search of narratives on hopefulness

Among narratives focusing on either humanitarian crisis or the security-related aspects of displacement, there are a few narratives which actually depict a state of hopefulness among Rohingya refugees. These narratives reflect that through appropriate responses and assistance, refugees are able to seek employment, not only to ease economic hardships and increase their self-reliance but also to contribute to the economic development of host countries, as stated below:

…refugees are the migrants most likely to secure their own income through establishing small businesses. This hardworking entrepreneurship is a net economic boost to the refugee's host country, rather than a drain. (The Jakarta Post 2015)

This view challenges more common narratives in two ways. First, it acknowledges the aspirations of refugees outside the emergency and their dependence on external actors—aspirations to be able to continue their lives independently. It critically contests the narrative that posits refugees as vulnerable and passive victims relying on humanitarian actors. Second, it emphasises the skills and potential contributions of refugees to host societies, rendering fear over security threats invalid. It emphasises the nature of refugees as ‘normal’ human beings whose experiences cannot be simplified to any single event. The fact that they might cross borders irregularly – without proper documents – does not make them criminals. As many scholars have criticised, mainstream narratives on forced displacement have removed the multifaceted accounts of histories, experiences and autonomies from refugees’ lives by instead reproducing depictions of mass bodies without names, opinions, aspirations, or stories. These are the kinds of images that can easily be manipulated by authoritative narrators to be either ‘victims’ or ‘villains’. By contrast, more nuanced views remind us that each displaced person has their own story we need to ponder upon.

Different from mainstream narratives, which are mostly conveyed by humanitarian organisations and state actors, alternative voices represent the views of civil society and refugees themselves. The close contacts between refugees and host societies help to realise a ‘protection space’. This space is made available through a practice many scholars call ‘everyday humanitarianism’.19  This serves as an alternative or ‘other’ form of humanitarianism where the relationship between humanitarian providers and recipients is more equal. In Southeast Asia, many countries hosting Rohingya refugees provide opportunities for them to engage in informal activities, such as informal employment and community works. In Indonesia and Malaysia, for instance, refugees are involved in volunteering activities, including informal education in which they take part as teachers.20 Similarly, in Australia, there has been a collective movement from refugee diaspora organisations voluntarily to help other asylum seekers needing assistance.21 This form of humanitarianism not only allows refugees to better integrate into a locality,22 but also to navigate the power asymmetries ingrained within the prevailing forms of humanitarian aid refugees receive.23 Through this alternative humanitarianism, refugees gain the ability to exercise the agency of which they are otherwise stripped. As Lumenta, Ariefiansyah and Nurhadist’s study reveals, by interacting with the host community, refugees successfully negotiate the representational categories and stereotypes they often encounter: ‘…the process liberated them from the burden of having to constantly represent themselves as ‘self-reliant’, ‘good migrants’ or even ‘victims’.’24 Similarly, Franck and Mainwaring find that where restrictive immigration controls limit refugees’ mobility, their interactions with locals in urban and border spaces enable them to navigate the legal categories, confines and exclusions they have to deal with.25 The question does remain, however, whether opportunities provided by civil society are sufficient to effectively challenge the dominant humanitarian regime. In Southeast Asia, particularly, it remains to be seen whether collective movement from civil society involved in the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) can contest the dominant state-centric approach, led by the Bali Process initiative, which currently allows non-State actors very limited opportunities to influence policies.26

This alternative way of perceiving displaced people should not overlook the state of ‘emergency’ experienced by these people, nor their needs for assistance. Rather, it implies that refugees also have hope and control over their fates, and that their realities are much more complex than mainstream representations that depict them as either ‘victims’ or ‘villains’. By encompassing context and complexity, this broader perception enables refugee voices and long-term solutions that take into account their personal histories and aspirations. What the discourses and practices of ‘everyday humanitarianism’ offer is similar to what Malkki calls ‘historicizing humanism’ – that is, ‘… acknowledging… narrative authority, historical agency and political memory.’27 This approach defies the prevailing humanitarian and security narratives that strip refugees’ histories and experiences and replaces them with a ‘black and white’ figure of a ‘sea of humanity’ requiring assistance and control from external actors. This alternative approach means recognising that, beyond their emergency context, refugees already possess a set of capabilities and characteristics which potentially allow them to carve out their own protection space. Thus, any humanitarian strategies should strive both to provide emergency assistance and support an empowerment agenda. 


Annisa Dina Amalia is currently working as a teaching staff in Department of International Relations, Universitas Indonesia. She teaches undergraduate students topics on migration, forced displacement, and human rights. As she is particularly interested in issues around refugees, she has written a number of articles on forced migration and its linkages to race, gender, North-South relations and regional politics, especially in Southeast Asia. Her current research focus is on the alternative humanitarian approaches led by community in the context of internal displacement in Indonesia.


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  • 1. Liisa H Malkki, ‘Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization’ (1996) 11 Cultural anthropology 377; Prem Kumar Rajaram, ‘Humanitarianism and Representations of the Refugee’ (2002) 15 Journal of Refugee Studies 247; Julia Pacitto and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, ‘Writing the “Other” into Humanitarian Discourse: Framing Theory and Practice in South–South Humanitarian Responses to Forced Displacement’ [2013] RSC Working Paper Series 1.
  • 2. Malkki (n 2) 378; Rajaram (n 2).
  • 3.   Maggie Ibrahim, ‘The Securitization of Migration: A Racial Discourse’ (2005) 43 International migration 163.
  • 4.   Anne Hammerstad, ‘The Securitization of Forced Migration’ in Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and others (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (Oxford University Press Oxford 2014); Benjamin Muller, ‘Globalization, Security, Paradox: Towards a Refugee Biopolitics’ (2004) 22 Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees.
  • 5. Stephan Scheel and Phlipp Ratfisch, ‘Refugee Protection Meets Migration Management: UNHCR as a Global Police of Populations’ (2013) 40 Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 924.
  • 6. Scott Downman and Kasun Ubayasiri, Journalism for Social Change in Asia: Reporting Human Rights (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
  • 7. Grewcock ‘Bordering on Denial: State Persecution, Border Controls and the Rohingya Refugee Crisis’, Media, Crime and Racism (Palgrave Macmillan 2018).
  • 8. Rafal Zaborowski and Myria Georgiou, ‘Gamers versus Zombies? Visual Mediation of the Citizen/Non-Citizen Encounter in Europe’s “Refugee Crisis”’ (2019) 17 Popular Communication 92.
  • 9. Karina Horsti, ‘Refugee Testimonies Enacted: Voice and Solidarity in Media Art Installations’ (2019) 17 Popular Communication 125.
  • 10.   Kaarina Nikunen, ‘Hopes of Hospitality: Media, Refugee Crisis and the Politics of a Place’ (2016) 19 International Journal of Cultural Studies 161.
  • 11.   Andrea Hickerson and Kate Dunsmore, ‘Locating Refugees’ (2016) 10 Journalism Practice 424; Sarah J Steimel, ‘Refugees as People: The Portrayal of Refugees in American Human Interest Stories’ (2010) 23 Journal of Refugee Studies 219.
  • 12. Jennifer Hyndman, ‘Introduction: The Feminist Politics of Refugee Migration’ (2010) 17 Gender, Place & Culture 453.
  • 13. Louise Olliff, ‘From Resettled Refugees to Humanitarian Actors: Refugee Diaspora Organizations and Everyday Humanitarianism’ (2018) 40 New Political Science 658.
  • 14. Michael N Barnett, ‘International Paternalism and Humanitarian Governance’ (2012) 1 Global Constitutionalism 485.
  • 15. Samuel Cheung, ‘Migration Control and the Solutions Impasse in South and Southeast Asia: Implications from the Rohingya Experience’ (2011) 25 Journal of Refugee Studies 50; Antje Missbach, Troubled Transit: Asylum Seekers Stuck in Indonesia (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute 2015); Prem Kumar Rajaram and Carl Grundy‐Warr, ‘The Irregular Migrant as Homo Sacer: Migration and Detention in Australia, Malaysia, and Thailand’ (2004) 42 Journal of International Migration 33.
  • 16.   Susan Kneebone, ‘The Bali Process and Global Refugee Policy in the Asia–Pacific Region’ (2014) 27 Journal of Refugee Studies 596.
  • 17. Antje Missbach and Frieda Sinanu, ‘“The Scum of the Earth”? Foreign People Smugglers and Their Local Counterparts in Indonesia’ (2011) 30 Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 57.]  As a consequence, the Bali Process’ approach indicates a tendency towards criminalisation, in which refugees are potentially rendered as criminals.Kneebone (n 22); Euan McKirdy and Saima Mohsin, ‘Lost at Sea, Unwanted: The Plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya ’boat People’ CNN (20 May 2015) < Cheung (n 20).
  • 19. Lisa Ann Richey, ‘Conceptualizing “Everyday Humanitarianism”: Ethics, Affects, and Practices of Contemporary Global Helping’ (2018) 40 New Political Science 625; Olliff (n 18); Pacitto and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (n 2).
  • 20. Annisa D Amalia, ‘The Protection of Refugee Rights Beyond a Legal Approach in Southeast Asia’ in Randy Wirasta Nandyatama, Dio Herdiawan Tobing and Shah Suraj Bharat (eds), The Evolution of The ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism: Institutional and Thematic Issues Within (ASEAN Studies Center 2019).
  • 21.  ibid; Olliff (n 18).
  • 22. Cheung (n 20).
  • 23. Olliff (n 18).
  • 24. Dave Lumenta, Rhino Ariefiansyah and Betharia Nurhadist, ‘Performing Out of Limbo: Reflections on Doing Anthropology through Music with Oromo Refugees in Indonesia’ [2017] Antropologi Indonesia 51, 61.
  • 25. Anja K Franck, ‘The “Street Politics” of Migrant Il/Legality: Navigating Malaysia’s Urban Borderscape’ (2019) 60 Asia Pacific Viewpoint 14; Ċetta Mainwaring, ‘Migrant Agency: Negotiating Borders and Migration Controls’ (2016) 4 Migration Studies 289.
  • 26. Kneebone (n 22).
  • 27. Malkki (n 2) 398.
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