Are Migrants Agents or Instruments of Development? The Case of ‘Temporary’ Migration in Malaysia

Parthiban Muniandy, Valeria Bonatti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How does the migration-development nexus affect conceptualisations of migrant agency that influence current debates about international migration? This paper discusses how treating migration as an ‘enabler’ of development limits how we understand migrants' agency. Although the migration-development paradigm defines migrants as ‘agents of development’, studies using this framework understand agency primarily in economic and financial terms, via migrants' engagement with global remittance flows. We discuss how this approach overemphasises those forms of agency that are functional to calculative measures and large-scale bureaucratic governance while obscuring migrants' capacities to navigate, adapt to and transform host societies. We suggest an alternative approach to understanding the actual diversity of migrants' experiences and practices: drawing from an ethnographic study conducted in Malaysia, we show how temporary labour migrants are able to use various innovative strategies, political technologies and devices in order to adapt to and secure dignified lives in the cities they work and live in. We conclude the paper with an invitation for migration scholars to move beyond the scope of narrow developmental frameworks to produce a more nuanced understanding of contemporary migrants' agency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1836-1853
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Ethnic and Migration Studies
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2014


  • Agency
  • Development
  • Malaysia
  • Temporary Migration
  • Transnational Urbanism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'Are Migrants Agents or Instruments of Development? The Case of ‘Temporary’ Migration in Malaysia'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this