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‘Illegal’ Migration as Resistance: Legality, Morality and Coercion in Indonesian Domestic Worker Migration to Malaysia

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This article explores dominant discourses on ‘illegal’ migrants in the context of contemporary Indonesian labour migration to Malaysia. By focusing on the particular case of migrant domestic workers, it discusses recent political moves undertaken by both nation-states to regularise migratory movements. These state-induced efforts at regularising transnational migration have been promoted as combating trafficking and ‘illegal’ migration, but they have led to the legitimisation of a migration scheme that has much in common with colonial indentured labour. Hence, the paper argues that this ‘legal,’ state-sanctioned migration scheme gradually leads domestic workers into ‘legal’ — but bonded — labour arrangements and that the labour contract, as such, needs to be analysed as an instrument of subordination. Through the counter-narrative of Arum, an Indonesian domestic worker performing her work ‘illegally’ in Malaysia, the paper then goes on to argue that to migrate through ‘illegal’ migration channels can be interpreted as an act of voluntarily circumventing the ‘legal,’ state-sanctioned migration scheme. Thus, ‘illegal’ migration can be equated with deliberately resisting a coercive system.

Affiliations: 1: Bern University


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