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The Problem with Humanitarian Borders

Toward a new framework of justice

The language of humanitarianism has played a central role in recent political and media debates about undocumented migrants crossing into Europe and North America. The unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States reached the designation of “humanitarian crisis” last summer, i.e. 2014, whereas the most recent tipping point in the Mediterranean came in April 2015, when at least five boats sank and close to 1,200 people drowned en route to Europe.

In response to the drownings of 700 en route from Libya to Lampedusa, the European Union Foreign Policy Commissioner Federica Mogherini stated, “The EU was created on the idea of the protection of human rights, human dignity and human life. We have to be consistent with that idea” (Lyman 2015). The European Commission stated that it wants to adopt “immediate measures to prevent human tragedies and to deal with emergencies.” It proposed a plan to reduce the loss of lives through joint search-and-rescue strategies. Indeed, there is already a host of humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) — ranging from the big, famous ones such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) to many other local incarnations — working at various entry points into Europe, such as the Spanish islands of Ceuta and Melilla as well as Italian Lampedusa.

Similarly, in the United States, politicians, the media, and human rights organizations called the arrival of undocumented children last summer a “humanitarian crisis” and an “urgent humanitarian situation”; President Obama initially responded by suggesting that, in addition to creating the conditions for Honduran children to apply for asylum from Honduras, he would consider them for “humanitarian parole,” which means temporary admission due to a compelling emergency. Even though humanitarianism was supposed to signal compassion for children who were fleeing unimaginable violence, Republicans and immigration opponents criticized Obama for using this language and being too soft, supposedly encouraging an opening of the floodgates. But humanitarianism is far from soft; indeed, it can often end up hurting those it intends to help. If we want to change the situation at the borders of Europe and the United States, we need another language: that of justice. There are a number of reasons why “humanitarianism” is not good enough and may even be destructive.

 1. The Problem with Innocence

First, humanitarianism sets up a distinction between innocent and guilty, leaving no space for the experiences of life. The quintessential humanitarian victims bear no responsibility for their suffering. Their innocence is what qualifies them for humanitarian compassion. As innocents, they are pure, without guile, and without intent — they are seemingly outside politics and certainly outside blame for their misfortune. Yet who are these perfect victims?

Interestingly, children are usually the face of humanitarianism; they are represented as innocent victims of famine, war, or natural disaster. We need look only at the introductory images on the websites of organizations such as the International Rescue Committee or Oxfam. And yet the migrant children who were at the heart of the crisis in the United States were not afforded the status of victims, worthy of humanitarian aid. Why? They seem to have been contaminated by an association not only with the gangs and violence of the drug trade that they are fleeing, but also with other undocumented immigrants, who are cast as criminal by virtue of having crossed a border in search of a better life or to reunite with their families. The melding of immigrant detention centers with prisons — increasingly owned and run by the same companies, such as The GEO Group — is both cause and manifestation of this criminalization. Now which of these children will pass the test of innocence? Which will qualify for humanitarian parole, when innocence is what is required? The journeys north that many have endured, often filled with horrific tales of violence and exploitation, would make anyone lose their innocence — if innocence is something anyone can possess, when it requires a sort of freedom from desire, will, or agency. If humanitarianism is the primary language used to counter closed-border and anti-immigrant policies, the majority of migrants — children included — will be sent to detention centers or deported without due process.

A similar focus on innocence is apparent in the European case. For instance, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano called the drownings off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 a “slaughter of innocents” (Davies 2013). This begs the questions of who committed the “slaughter”; that is, this focus on innocence and vulnerability immediately invokes a simultaneous slot for — and criminalization of — the guilty. In this sense, humanitarianism is inevitably accompanied by practices of policing; compassion comes with repression (see, for instance, Fassin 2005; Ticktin 2005). Here, the traffickers have been designated the guilty party. Yet these “traffickers” may be family members, friends, or part of migrant communities, in similar situations as the migrants themselves; indeed, migrants usually solicit help to cross — it is not a simple situation of the innocent being preyed upon by the guilty. Indeed, it is effectively impossible to enter the global north to make a claim for asylum now without a smuggler’s help (see Hathaway 2008); but this is primarily the consequence of the varied militarized security apparatuses. It is not driven by the collusion of traffickers. This focus on traffickers, rather than helping the innocent, furthers the criminalization and securitization of borders, which in turn leads to more deaths.

Likewise, since April, both the media and public officials in Europe have insisted on the distinction between “refugees” and “illegal economic migrants”; although asylum is a legal category that we want to protect, the way it is being used here is primarily a moral, not a legal, distinction that purports to separate the innocent from the guilty, the deserving from the undeserving. “Real” refugees are seen as innocent — fleeing real well-founded fears of persecution. As anthropologist Liisa Malkki argued in 1996, refugees, especially African refugees, are figured as “a ‘sea’ or ‘blur of humanity’” — as “a spectacle of a ‘raw,’ ‘bare humanity’” (Malkki 1996:387). They are understood as passive and in need of saving: This is the classic image of innocence. Economic migrants, by contrast, are counterpoised against refugees and portrayed as wily, trying to lie their way into the welfare and other benefits of Europe and to undermine European security as well as European values. In other words, humanitarianism requires innocent sufferers to be represented in the passivity of their suffering, not in the action they take to confront and escape it (see Boltanski 1999).

This focus on helping and saving refugees is an attempt to appear generous and humane, while still limiting the numbers to a few exceptional cases: As philosopher Hannah Arendt already acknowledged in 1951, “asylum as a category was always only meant for the exceptional cases, never for the masses” (Arendt 1951:291). Indeed, as just one example, according to EU Eurostats, Spain granted asylum to a total of 15 people in 2014. As such, humanitarianism can serve as a cover for removing rights for the many in the name of the few. Innocence should not be a criterion that separates out those who live and die, or how they live and die. In this sense, humanitarianism — rather than protect humanity as a whole — establishes hierarchies of humanity (for more on this idea, see Fassin 2010). By this account, some of us are more human than others.

2. The Problem with Emergency

Second, humanitarianism addresses only the present: we have humanitarian “crises” or “emergencies,” which require immediate action. With this temporal perspective, there is no way to understand events in a larger historical context: no time to think of the past or plan for the future — humanitarianism frames events as sudden and unpredictable. To be sure, there are such situations: for instance, the recent 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the 2012 Hurricane “Sandy” in the United States, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, or the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, all of which fit the definition of “humanitarian crisis” to a tee. Yet talking about any situation as a humanitarian emergency makes it seem as if it is an exception to an otherwise peaceful order. There is no space to understand causes or histories that might have led to or shaped this moment. There was a significant increase in the number of children crossing the border into the United States in 2014, but their journeys were not sudden, or unpredictable; unaccompanied children have been coming in greater numbers at least since 2009, fleeing situations of increasing violence. The number in October 2014 was being reported at somewhere between 52,000 and 57, 000, but in 2013 there were already well more than 25,000 unaccompanied children, and in 2012, there were 13,000.

People have also been crossing from North Africa into Europe — and dying — for many years now. Before the European Union was formed and visas were required, they came and went without fanfare, according to seasonal labor demands. But after the Schengen accords were signed, such crossings were rendered illegal and they became more dangerous. The first deaths registered were in the Straits of Gibraltar in the early 1990s. The fences at Ceuta and Melilla date from the mid-1980s, but in 2005, after a famous rush on the walls, a third fence was built at Melilla to stop the regular influx of migrants. But by looking at the development of Frontex, the European border management agency, we also know that the crossings and the many deaths at sea have a history: Why would such technologies, including sensors, cameras, cables, drones, and wires, have been developed if this were a sudden occurrence? And there is still more: Since the 1990s, there has been an effort by the European Union in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to train bordering countries such as Morocco in asylum practices — effectively outsourcing and off-shoring asylum — so that they can act as the police officers of Europe and block the passage of sub-Saharans. This too belies the idea of emergency.

To address the problem, then, we need to understand it beyond the purview of emergency: look to its past — its history and its causes — and think about how we might forge a different future.

For example, the drug war — and the insatiable demand coming from the United States — and the rising inequality between rich and poor are fueling this violence, and to change it, these both must be tackled with new strategies. Similarly, the “hunger” that draws migrants from Africa to Europe is shaped by the histories of structural adjustment programs in Africa layered onto histories of colonialism and intervention. And both the US-Mexico and the Mediterranean deaths are shaped by the extremely lucrative migrant industry — a great example of global capitalism at work — and the profits made by transnational companies investing in surveillance, detention, and prison technologies. At best, it is naïve to suggest that the crossings will be stopped by fences, or the drownings by humanitarians.

3. The Problem with Compassion

Third, humanitarianism is about feelings rather than rights; it is about compassion, not entitlement. Humanitarian exceptions are precisely that — exceptions to regular laws. And they are usually made on the basis of emotion. When migrants are spoken of as humanitarian victims, we take them out of the range of the law, where they have the right to be free from violence. Why must we resort to exceptions, or to charity or benevolence, when Europe and the United States claim to be exemplary practitioners of law and good governance? As just one example, while calling itself humanitarian, the US White House simultaneously suggested that it wanted to strip some of the undocumented children of rights they had under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which makes immediate deportation illegal. Even though people have begun claiming “humanitarian rights,” by which they mean the right to water, food, and shelter (see Feldman 2011), in fact, there is as of yet no legal obligation to give aid, to rescue, or to care. Instead, for these, we are dependent on individual sensibilities, which, in turn, are shaped by racialized and gendered ideas of who is a worthy subject of compassion and which wax, wane, and risk saturation or “compassion fatigue.” Furthermore, compassion chooses a few exceptional individuals and excludes the rest — indeed, by its very definition, compassion is unable to generalize. That is, according to Arendt (1990:85), it can be actualized only in particular situations in which those who do not suffer come face to face with those who do. [1] Insofar as it focuses on individuals, and not structural realities, compassion cannot, by itself, further a politics of equality. Perhaps more importantly, in its current, institutionalized forms, humanitarianism actually maintains inequality, insofar as it separates out two populations: those who can feel and act on their compassion, on the one hand, and those who must be the subjects (or objects) of it, on the other — those who have the power to protect and those who need protection.

If we truly want to stop the growing numbers of dead at the doorstep, we must work with migrants for justice, not substitute in charity. Political work to this end must be a shared act, which involves rethinking what political action and justice mean for everyone — not just for those who are understood as needing help or care or for those who want to migrate. We all must rethink what an equitable world would look like, as it will affect us all. There are a number of movements already at work: There are those who argue for basic human rights for all, including the right to mobility. This is a powerful and important set of ideas, even as human rights are still primarily granted by nation-states and still work on the basis of theories of sovereignty and individualism. Other more radical strategies for justice and equality include the quest for open borders, grounded on the idea of the struggle for the commons. This moves away from ideas of states, citizens, and private property to the notion of common rights, which, rather than being about the right to exclude — as is the case with borders now — are grounded on the right not to be excluded (Anderson et al. 2011; Agier & Gemenne 2015). In this vision of the future, we do away with the concepts of “migrant” and “refugee” and even “citizen,” as their meanings are grounded in exclusionary ideas of belonging. These movements urge us to imagine new ways of being together at a global scale, grounded on participation and labor, duty and obligation, and shared common resources.

To argue against humanitarian borders is not to argue against a place for emotion in the face of the many dead; it is to make way for feelings that fit with different projects for equality, with different political visions. Where is the place for a politics of mourning, one that moves beyond a state of emergency, beyond feelings of pity for the innocent, and harnesses both outrage and hope?


[1] Arendt argues that the exception to this rule is Jesus Christ, as portrayed by Fyodor Dostoevski; the sign of Jesus’ divinity was his ability to have compassion for all men in their singularity, without lumping them together into one suffering mankind. Arendt, Hannah. 1990. On Revolution, p. 85.


Agier, Michel and Francoise Gemenne. 2015. “Soyons réalistes: 10 raisons d’ouvrir les frontières.” L’Obs BibliObs, June 27.

Anderson, Bridget, Nandita Sharma, and Cynthia Wright. 2011. “Editorial: Why No Borders?” Refuge 26(2):5-18.

Arendt, Hannah. 1951. Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Meridian Books.

Arendt, Hannah. 1990. On Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Boltanski, Luc. 1999. Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics, trans. Graham Burchell. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, Lizzy. 2013. “Lampedusa Boat Tragedy Is ‘Slaughter of Innocents’ Says Italian President.” The Guardian, Oct. 3.

Fassin, Didier. 2005. “Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France.” Cultural Anthropology 20(3):362-387.

Fassin, Didier. 2010. “Inequality of Lives, Hierarchies of Humanity: Moral Commitments and Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarianism.” In In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care, ed. Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin, ch. 9, pp. 238-255. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Feldman, Ilana. 2011. “The Humanitarian Condition: Palestinian Refugees and the Politics of Living.” Humanity 3(2):155-172.

Hathaway, James. 2008. “The Human Rights Quagmire of ‘Human Trafficking’.” Virginia Journal of International Law 49(1):1-59.

Lyman, Eric J. 2015. “Hundreds of Migrants Drown in Mediterranean as Europe Refugee Crisis Boils Over.” Washington Times, Apr. 20.

Malkki, Liisa. 1996. “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization.” Cultural Anthropology 11(3):377-404.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2005. “Policing and Humanitarianism in France: Immigration and the Turn to Law as State of Exception.” Interventions 7(3):347-368

Miriam Ticktin

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