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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 101 (Suppl.), August 2006



A Report on Migrant Life in Brunei



H.E. Bishop Cornelius SIM

Apostolic Vicar



In the report International Migration 2002, an estimated 175 million people were residing in a country other than where they were born. This figure was expected to reach 185 million to 192 million by early 2005.1 As of 2002, 40,726,000 migrants were to be found in Islamic Majority Countries. 2

The CIA World Factbook counts 48 countries with populations of more than 50% Muslim inhabitants.3 Muslims come from diverse ethnic backgrounds and speak about 60 languages. They cover 20.6% of world land area, 22% of world population, with 8.7% of world GDP (US$ 4.3 trillion) on a purchasing power parity basis. 4

This paper seeks to provide a snapshot of migrant life in Brunei Darussalam, a small oil producing sultanate in South East Asia. It is hoped that this presentation will make a modest contribution to the discussion on issues of common concern to migrants, particularly Christian migrants, living in Muslim majority countries. 

Migrants in Brunei Darussalam

The UN reference International Migration 2002 quoted a figure of 100,000 migrants in Brunei or 31.7 % out of a population of 328,000.5 More recently, a local source reports that Brunei currently has “more than 70,000 foreign workers, most of them Indonesians, working in the construction and services sectors.”6 

Historically, Malaysians and Singaporeans were part of the labour scene in Brunei for decades, because of their close proximity to Brunei and a shared legacy of British rule. Later arrivals are Filipinos, South Asians, Thais, and other ASEAN nationals.

Brunei today reflects some of the dynamics of the “changing poles of attraction” for labour migration.7 More Asians are finding job opportunities within Asia itself. Estimates put the number of Indonesians at 35,000, Malaysians at 30,000 and Filipinos at 21,000.

While the majority are employed in the construction and services industry, others are professionals such as teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers and accountants. This group includes expatriates from the developed world, e.g. EU and USA.

Data obtained from on embassy for their registered nationals, indicate that, by occupation, professionals make up 8.3 %, skilled workers would be 11.8 % and the services sector stands at 70.3%, with 9.5 % being dependents.

The feminization of migration seems quite evident in Brunei, although the female to male ratio varies depending on the country of origin. For example, if we were to take the Filipino expatriate community, females outnumber males 2 to 1. 

General Challenges All Migrants Face

In a desire to seek a better life, migrant workers make great sacrifices in accepting adverse conditions of life and work often shunned by local residents. Those in the poorlier paid services sector also face the stigma of a lower social class and a negative public image.8

Some countries have pre-departure seminars for citizens planning to work abroad. The Philippine government offers protection to their workers in the form of a certified contract and processes by which they can file claims against their employers. Not all countries are as well set up to assist their own migrant workers.

In the sending country, a related issue is the sometimes dubious nature of recruitment itself. We have many first hand experiences of migrant workers stranded in Brunei because agencies recruit their countrymen for non-existent jobs abroad. These migrants are abandoned by their agencies once they arrive here.

When they do get the jobs promised, many workers spend most of their wages to pay off huge debts incurred in initially securing these jobs. Employers can withhold wages for months and the migrant must struggle to survive in the meantime. (One case of a worker who was not paid for 23 months came out in the media recently.)9

Brunei law considers contracts signed abroad as invalid.  Newly arrived migrants find themselves pressured to sign a new inferior contract in a “rushed” state. Terms and conditions of employment are often changed without notice.10 The example of a garment factory which failed to deliver on their promises highlights these issues.

Migrants have few legal resources and no NGOs to avail of in seeking redress. Labour unions, while not proscribed, are not setup to serve migrants. Legislation to deal precisely with migrant workers’ situation is needed. However, as migrant labour is perceived as a “temporary” phenomenon, this is likely to be a very slow process.11

The level of embassy support varies greatly from country to country. The Philippine embassy provides protection services and a center for their nationals needing temporary safe refuge, while awaiting resolution of cases. Sadly, many other migrants do not seek embassy help believing none is available.

Undocumented or improperly documented migrant workers pose a special problem. Many tourists who “job hop” illegally and those who stay on with expired work-passes are often caught in regular spot checks by the immigration authorities.

OECD studies indicate that the longer a migrant stays in a country the greater are the chances of labour market integration.12 In Brunei, opportunities for migrants to compete for jobs in certain sectors are limited. Skills notwithstanding, they have little possibility of obtaining permanent residence or citizenship status.

Labour authorities are increasingly taking action to enforce the laws and regulations that apply to employers and migrant workers alike. In September 2005, the authorities intervened to secure workers rights against a company that defaulted on wage payments. However, action against migrants must consider that employers are often to be blamed for shoddy administration and disregard for workers welfare.13 

Specific Issues Facing Christian Migrants

The official religion of Brunei is Islam, but it has a policy of religious tolerance.14Catholic and Anglican churches are recognized and exist openly although there is an unwritten understanding that Christian activities should be conducted on church premises. Zoning regulations discourage meeting elsewhere.

The local Catholic community of 3,000 is augmented by a migrant influx of around 17,000. Besides English, masses are held in the national language (Malay, similar to Indonesian) to serve indigenous local and Indonesian Catholics. As 90 % of the worshippers are Filipinos at some masses, our priests have also learned to say masses in “Taglish” (a mix of Tagalog and English).

Masses frequented by migrants develop their own special character. Migrants add colour to church celebrations with their cultural contributions such as dance and music. They convey the truly universal dimension of the Church in a most effective way to enhance our local Catholics’ appreciation of catholicity.

In Brunei, employers are expected to give their employees time off to practice their religious duties. In reality, not a few workers are restricted precisely from fulfilling these. Employers cite work conflicts and fear of workers picking up “bad habits” as mitigating factors.

There are many inspiring cases of peer-to-peer evangelization. Away from home, many apparently lukewarm Catholic migrants deepen their faith and begin to be active evangelizers. Special prayer groups for migrants are set up by fellow countrymen from such organizations as Couples for Christ and El Shaddai.

Social problems such as loneliness and depression coexist with directly job-related ones. It is not uncommon to have to deal with so-called “temporary” and “live-in” liaisons between migrants. These create pastoral problems e.g. with handling children born out of these relationships.

Harassment, extortion, exploitation, and criminal activity inflicted by migrants on fellow migrants do happen. However, what we experience much more is the tremendous capacity within migrant communities to care for one another, despite their often very limited resources.

Integrating migrants within the church presents its own challenges. Migrants tend to import their own understanding of class and caste into Brunei e.g. the separation between Malayalam and Tamil Catholics from India. Local and migrant Catholics can create “superior” and “inferior” camps, quite incompatible with true Christian values.

The church’s relief work is mainly directed to Catholics, through the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Some Christians convert to Islam occasionally, often in the context of marriage. This renders them effectively “out-of-bounds” to us due to the generally observed understanding that our services should be directed to our co-religionists.

At its most basic, we provide a venue for Catholic migrants to gather and share with one another in a climate of security and trust. Besides spiritual support, we provide aid in emergency cases such as repatriation of those stranded without funds to return home or financial help in cases such as illness and hospitalization.

A succinct summary on the role of faith in migrant workers’ lives is given by a writer who has spoken about religion as an important personal resource:

“Religion as part of the identity and culture of migrants can be a source of personal empowerment. In the case of Filipino migrants, various studies have indicated how faith in God is part of the preparations of migrants and their source of strength in working and living abroad. Where there is space for religious expression, this personal faith can evolve into more collective expressions, such as the formation of support groups and lobbying groups by migrants themselves, which can augur for more humane migration.”15


The presence of migrants in Brunei challenges the local Church to express its solidarity with them in tangible and fraternal ways. As a minority itself within a larger non-Christian context, the Church should be, in a unique way, most sensitive to the needs of the migrant brethren.

It is not simply a question of migrants being recipients of aid. The Church does provide a much needed service by addressing some of their spiritual and material needs. At the same time, migrant workers find in the Church an avenue to serve fellow Catholics, thus enriching the mutual experience of being Church.

Christ is present in everyone. He reaches out to us as he is present in the migrant worker both as beneficiary and caregiver. The words of Jesus resonate in our hearts in a whole new way as we together contemplate his words “… I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Matt. 25:35).

Appendix 1 

Brief Overview of Brunei Darussalam16

Brunei Darussalam is situated on the north-west of the island of Borneo, between east longitudes 114 degrees 04' and 11 degrees 23' and north latitudes of 4 degrees 00' and 5 degrees 05'. It has a total area of 5,765 sq. km. with a coastline of about 161-km along the South China Sea. It is bounded on the North by the South China Sea and on all the other sides by the Malaysian State of Sarawak.

Based on the official government website,17 the population of Brunei Darussalam in 2004 was estimated at 357,800 persons. Of this, 186,200 are males and 171,600 females. 

This estimate includes all people residing in Brunei Darussalam. Malay, which also included Brunei Indigenous communities of Malay, Kedayan, Tutong, Belait, Bisaya, Dusun and Murut, constitutes the major population group numbering at 237,100. Other Indigenous groups make up 12,300, Chinese at 40,200 persons and other races not specified at 68,200.

Brunei Darussalam is the third largest oil producer in Southeast Asia and it produced 163,000 barrels per day. It is also the fourth largest producer of liquefied natural gas in the world.

Human resources are central to the successful transformation of Brunei Darussalam into a diversified industrial economy. As in most developing nations, there is a shortage of skilled workforce in the country. Therefore, greater emphasis is placed upon education. The main areas of interest in human resources development are managerial and industrial skills, with particular emphasis on entrepreneurial skills as well as vocational and technical training.

Brunei Darussalam's main exports consist of three major commodities - crude oil, petroleum products and liquefied natural gas - sold largely to Japan, the United States and ASEAN countries. The Government's move to promote non-oil and gas activities has been largely successful with figures showing 64% of GDP in 1996 compared to only 24.3% in 1991.

Brunei, being an oil exporting country, has a GDP (purchasing power parity) of $B6,842 billion (2003 estimate)18 and a per capita GDP of $B23,600 (2003 estimate) based on a population of 379,444 (July 2006 estimate).19

(Note: One US Dollar – US$ = approximately 1.7 Brunei Dollar – $B) 

Religious Demography

The Brunei Yearbook 2006 indicates that 67 percent of the population is Muslim, 13 percent is Buddhist, 10 percent is Christian, and another 10 percent adheres to indigenous beliefs or other faiths.

The majority of local Christians (Anglicans, Catholics, and Methodists) would be ethnic Chinese and indigenous. The Catholic Church in Brunei attained the level of an Apostolic Vicariate with its first local bishop in 2005. 3,000 local and 15,000 expatriate Catholics are spread over three parishes administered by three priests.

Local Buddhists would mainly be composed of Chinese residents. There is also a large workforce composed mainly of Australian, British, Filipino, South Asian, Indonesian, and Malaysian expatriates that includes Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus.

There are 101 mosques and prayer halls, 7 Christian churches, several Chinese temples, and 2 Hindu temples in the country.


1. World Migration Report 2005: Costs and Benefits of International Migration. Geneva: IOM (International Organization for Migration) Publications. p. 13.

2. Number of World’s Migrants Reaches 175 Million Mark. Press release (POP/844). October 28th, 2002. Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, New York.

3. Wikipedia website:

4. Wikipedia website:

5. International Migration 2002. UN Publication (ST/ESA/SER.A/219): UN Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, New York.

6. Handling of foreign workers: Brunei keen to learn from M'sia. Reported in Borneo Bulletin: April 7th, 2006.

7. World Migration Report 2005: Costs and Benefits of International Migration. Geneva: IOM (International Organisation for Migration) Publications. p. 13.

8. Social Dimensions of International Migration. Paper presented at the Third Coordination Meeting on International Migration, New York: October 27th -28th, 2004.

9. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2005. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor: March 8th, 2006.

10. Rodrigues, R. M. (2002). Striking Filipino Workers in Brunei: Globalisation, migrant workers and migration policy in a labour-sending state. Asia Pacific Migration Research Network: Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley. p. 7.

11. Ascoly, Nina. (2004). The Global Garment Industry and the Informal Economy: Critical Issues for Labor Rights Advocates. Discussion Paper for CCC (Clean Clothes Campaign) and IRENE (International Restructuring Education Network Europe) Seminar: September 23rd -25th, 2004.

12. Trends in International Migration: Continuous Reporting System on Migration Annual Report. 2001 edition. OECD Publications. p. 56.


13. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2005. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor: March 8th, 2006.

14. Borneo Bulletin Brunei Yearbook 2006: Key Information on Brunei 2006. Bandar Seri Begawan: Brunei Press. p.144.

15. Asis, M. M. B. (2004). Religion and Migrants’ empowerment: Some indications from Asian Experiences. Paper presented at World Congress Human Movements and Immigration, Barcelona: September 2nd – 5th, 2004.

16. Borneo Bulletin Brunei Yearbook 2006: Key Information on Brunei 2006. Bandar Seri Begawan: Brunei Press. p. 143.

17. Brunei Government Website


18. The World Factbook – Brunei


19. The World Factbook – Brunei


1. Varona, R. (2004). Regional Overview 2004: Asian Migration Yearbook 2004. Asian Migration Centre, Hongkong.

2. Levels and Trends of International Migration to Selected Countries in Asia. Publication ST/ESA/SER.A/218: Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, United Nations.