In 2015, more than one million migrants reached Europe in the largest movement of people since WWII. In order to seize control of “irregular migration,” the EU and Schengen countries instituted a new policy of regional containment from late March 2016 that targeted migrants arriving via major land and sea routes. Moreover, European transit countries, with Hungary in the lead, strengthened border control and built new fences to deter migrants. In the Mediterranean, humanitarian search and rescue missions intensified, as did EU border patrols and surveillance. The efforts to constrain, deflect and deter migrants are likely to continue and even intensify. Effectively, a policy of humanitarian containment by the EU and Schengen member states establishes the Middle East as a “catch basin” for refugees and migrants alike. To study the origins of this dynamic, the SuperCamp project combines refugee-, border- and archival studies for an inter-regional analysis of immobility and containment.
The Middle East as a zone
The Middle East region is not only a spatial container and “catch basin” but also takes on features of what can be termed a SuperCamp,where refugees and migrants are not so much hosted as held hostage. The Middle East region now forms a regional zone of containment, a SuperCamp under humanitarian government. As pointed out by Are John Knudsen(Chr. Michelsen Institute) in his introduction to the panel, the refugees’ and migrants’ mobility are circumscribed locally (host states) and regionally through bilateral- (EU-Turkey deal) and multilateral treaties (Schengen). Refugees and migrants typically lack the rights that accrue to ordinary citizens, hence depend on host states and the UN-system (UNHCR, UNRWA) for their upkeep. There are now more than 500 camps in operation, they range from traditional refugee camps in the Middle East, to various types of internment camps and “hot spots” in Europe – examples include the large refugee camps Zaatari and Azraq in Jordan, transit camps in France like the Calais “jungle” (now closed), the infamous Moria internment camp in Lesvos, Greece’s largest camp, and Cara de Mineo in Sicily, until recently Italy’s major migrant “hot spot” center. Together, the treaties and camps underpin a regime of forced immobility designed to keep refugees and migrants inside the Middle East region and outside of continental Europe.
Tracing the historical
roots of encampment
In order to trace
international humanitarian responses to the refugees in the Middle East, we need to go back to
the mid-19th century Middle East. The history of refugee
resettlement in the late Ottoman and mandate-period Middle East, shows the
longer lines of this development, as discussed by Benjamin
White (University of Glasgow). He traced the shift towards practices of containment
that occurred as a dynastic empire gave way to nation-states, with a particular
focus on the Baquba refugee camp in post-Ottoman Iraq. One core research focus
is how regional displacement in the late Ottoman and early-Mandate period lay
the foundations of state policies and early “encampment”.
The policy of encampment gained pace
during the period 1950-2000, following the camp policy that was instituted to respond
to the Palestinian refugee crisis, but later extended to other crises and
regions as well. For 70 years, in a highly politicized context, the United
Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has delivered temporary humanitarian assistance to
Palestinian refugees, Kjersti Berg(Chr. Michelsen
Institute) highlighted some dilemmas arising from UNRWAs long-term tenure. Established in 1949,
UNRWAs mandate has been limited to the “humanitarian realms” and the
agency is not empowered to provide any “durable solutions” to the refugees’
plight. In sheer numbers, the Palestinian refugee population is one of the
largest, and their displacement one of the most protracted and characterized by
a lack of access to rights. The refugees’ “Right of Return” to Palestine is
enshrined in international law, but Israel rejects their return, as well as the
quest for statehood. Due to political impasse, UNRWA therefore continues to provide
quasi-state services and assistance to the refugees.
The years from 2000 onwards have seen the policies of containment, which are so central to refugee camps, taken even further. The containment of migrants not only involves protracted “strandedness” and immobility, but is also about governing migration through disruption and keeping migrants constantly on the move, as Synnøve Bendixsen (University of Bergen) argued in her presentation. Based on ethnographic fieldwork along the so-called Balkan route, she explored the effects of containment by the EU and Schengen member states. The Balkan region has been reconfigured as a transit and waiting zone by the ongoing bio-political policies of forced immobility. In this process, the migrant journeys, their speed, strategies and imaginaries are constituted through a humanitarian architecture that keep refugees stranded both inside and outside the EU.
In a time where
migration and refugee policies are entering both public and political forums of
debate in full force, an analytical project that combines specialized research
fields that seldom communicate – refugee, migration and humanitarian border
studies and history – provides important insight for enhanced understanding of both
regional and global forces of humanitarian containment.
This project is funded
by the FRIPRO-programme of
the Research Council of Norway, and it runs from 2019-2022.
Written by Liliana Lyra Jubilut (Universidade Católica de Santos), Marcia Vera Espinoza (Queen Mary University of London) & Gabriela Mezzanotti (University of South-Eastern Norway)
This text first appeared on E-International Relations and is re-posted here. More E-IR articles can be accessed by clicking this link.Prof Liliana Lyra Jubilut is a Professor of the Post-graduate Program in Law at Universidade Católica de Santos, Dr Marcia Vera Espinoza is a Lecturer i Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London, and Dr Gabriela Mezzanotti is an Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law at the University of South-Eastern Norway. The authors are currently working on the edited book ‘Latin America and Refugee Protection: regimes, logics, and challenge’.
On November 22nd 2019 the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees (Cartagena Declaration) turns 35. It is a paramount document on refugees’ protection in Latin America, setting both normative standards and the regional tone for policies and actions in this area, thus, being a cornerstone of Refugee Law in the region. This is especially relevant as the Latin America is facing contrasting scenarios in terms of migration governance: an increasing politicization of migration and refugees’ management and anti-immigrant sentiments, as well as disrespect for human rights and refugee law, coexisting with a regional tradition of granting asylum and the ascertaining of a human-rights based (Grandi, 2017) and avant-gard protection for refugees (Freier and Acosta 2015; Jubilut and Lopes 2018).
context, it is relevant to present the Cartagena Declaration to a larger
audience, celebrate its 35th anniversary, and assess whether the
framework of protection created by it since 1984 can be a relevant tool in
dealing with these competing scenarios in refugee protection in Latin America,
as a way to appraise its lasting and current impacts.
Cartagena Declaration and Its Regime
Cartagena Declaration was created in an academic colloquium (Colloquium on the
International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico, and Panama)
held in Colombia in 1984, in light of the refugee situation in Central America, and adopted a regional approach to refugee
Cartagena Declaration set the basis for the evolution of a specific
Latin-American framework of refugees’ protection, developing from the region’s
long-established tradition of asylum (Fischel De Andrade, 2014, Acnur n/d). It
dialogues, however, with larger frameworks (Jubilut and Lopes, 2018), such as
the international refugee regime (a relation expressed both in the Document’s
explicit mentions to the 1951 Refugee
Convention and its 1967 Protocol and in its support by the United Nations
High Commissioner from the beginning, Human Rights and other regional schemes such as
the Organization of American States (OAS) – which embraced the Declaration and encompasses the United States, Mexico,
and the Caribbean States alongside Latin America countries. Due to its
normative developments, has been listed together with the 1969 OUA
Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in
Africa as examples of successful developments in regional refugee
Cartagena Declaration, initially adopted by 10
States as a soft law instrument, is divided into 3 content parts: the
first one with a preamble aspect contextualizing the document and expressing
its fundaments and principles; the second one linking the document to the Contadora
Process for Peace and reproducing its normative result, and the third part with the substantive
contributions of the Document, presented as conclusions.
There are 17
conclusions in the Cartagena Declaration encompassing suggestions specifically
tailored to the Central America refugee situation, provisions on the betterment
of refugee protection in the States of the region, and contributions to refugee
protection at large in Latin America. In the latter, two aspects should be
The first is
the already mentioned dialogue between refugee protection and human rights.
This is a prevalent topic in the Cartagena Declaration, and should be praised
both as a pioneering effort in States’ practice in this area (in the early
1980s) and as a guideline aiming at guaranteeing integral protection for
refugees, i.e. not only the rights they are entitled to due to their migratory
status but also all their human rights (Jubilut, Apolinário, 2008).
Furthermore, this connection opens up the possibility of refugee protection
also benefiting from other institutional arrangements linked to human rights
(such as the InterAmerican System of Human Rights from the OAS), and,
therefore, being enlarged.
aspect regarding refugee protection at large in Latin America is the creation
of a regional definition of refugees that goes beyond the international
criteria set up by the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This
stems from the 3rd Conclusion of the Cartagena Declaration, that reads:
the definition or concept of a refugee to be recommended for use in the region is one which, in addition to containing the elements of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, includes among refugees persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order. (highlights added)
criteria look into the objective situation of the country of origin of the
refugee as the main cause for refugee status, not requiring the existence of
individual persecution (Jubilut and Carneiro, 2011; 67, Reed-Hurtado, 2013) and
closely links refugee status to International Human Rights and International
Humanitarian Law (Ibid; Burson and Cantor 2016).
several criteria spelled out in the 3rd Conclusion,
the one mentioning massive violation of human rights (or gross and generalized
violation of human rights as more commonly used in the region) is not only the more encompassing one, but also is perceived as the main conceptual
contribution of the Cartagena Declaration. This is so due to the fact that
albeit not applied in its entire possible width it allows for recognizing
refugee status “when internationally recognized rights are subject to
widespread or large scale violations—situations of ‘gross and systematic denial
of civil, political, economic and social, and cultural rights” (Reed-Hurtado,
2013: 14), encompassing, for instance, situations such as dictatorships,
internal strives, humanitarian crisis, and war. In this sense, and from a
normative standpoint, it is a relevant increase in protection in the region.
of a regional concept of refugee, and the inclusion of the possibility of
refugee status due to gross and generalized violation of human rights in it,
are the first two impacts of the Cartagena Declaration that need to be
emphasized. They not only amplify protection in the region but also establish a
Latin-American grammar in refugee protection, combining the international
criteria for refugee status determination with a tailored regional definition.
The latter also reinforces the dialogue between Refugee Law and Human Rights,
present from the start in the regional regime as it is incorporated in the
region’s refugee definition from 1984. The Cartagena Declaration concept of
refugee and its peculiarities can be said to be a first pillar in the creation
of a regional refugee regime in Latin America.
accepts regimes as the existence of rules, principles, and decision-making
procedures (Krasner,1982) this perception is corroborated by the fact that the
Cartagena Declaration set up a revision process, with meetings every 10 years
to evaluate the region’s needs and developments in refugee protection and to
adopt follow-up documents and plans of actions.
The first of
these meetings was held in 1994, and resulted in the San Jose Declaration, which has
as its main specific contribution the fact that, regionalizing the
international momentum of the topic and perceiving the region’s needs in the
issue, strongly dealt with the protection of Internally Displaced Persons as a
relevant Latin-America theme in refugee protection. The second follow-up meeting took place in 2004
and resulted in the adoption of the Mexico Declaration and
Plan of Action, which embraced a responsibility-sharing
optic instead of the more traditional burden-sharing approach to refugee
protection, and was divided in two main components: one focusing on protection
and the other on durable solutions (Jubilut and Carneiro 2011). In the latter,
three regional initiatives were adopted within the solidarity logic that guides all the document: 1)
borders of solidarity, focusing on protection at frontiers as well as on
actions for local host populations on border towns; 2) cities of solidarities,
with a focus on integration in urban settings, the main scenario in Latin
America; and 3) resettlement in solidarity, creating new resettlement schemes
in the region, for both intra and extra regional refugees and having as its
main selection criterion the need for protection (Vera Espinoza 2018a, 2018b;
Jubilut and Zamur 2018). The most recent of the meetings happened in 2014
and led to the adoption of the Brazil Declaration and
Plan of Action, which reinforces the initiatives previously
adopted and the existence of a regional regime of refugee protection in Latin
America (Jubilut and Madureira 2014), and continues the Cartagena Declaration
regional refuge definition is the first pillar of the Cartagena Declaration
regime of refugee protection, the revisional process and its products are the
second. They are also good thermometers of regional adherence to the regime,
pointing out a continuous increase in commitments, as one can see that while
the Cartagena Declaration was initially adopted by 10 countries and is currently
incorporated nationally by 16, the San Jose Declaration
was signed by 17 States, the Mexico Declaration and Plan of Action by 20, and
the Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action by 31 countries. Furthermore, they
showcase an evolution from only declarations to declarations and plans of
actions which represents concerns about both normative propositions and actual
implementation and policies.
pillar of the regional refugee regime can be said to be the aforementioned
connection with human rights, which has led the region to be praised internationally
(Grandi, 2017). This is relevant as it also sheds light into a fourth pillar
and key aspect of refugee protection in Latin America, as it is the coexistence
of different systems and regimes (Jubilut and Lopes, 2018: 132). In relation to
the former, one can point out (i) the dual nature of asylum in the region,
implemented by political asylum and refugee status, (ii) the dialogues among
Refugee Law and International Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law,
and (iii) the coexistence of the regional definition with the international
refugee definition (Ibid).
the coexistence of regimes of refugee protection in Latin America, it is relevant to first recall the previously
mentioned relationship between the regime created by the Cartagena Declaration
with the InterAmerican Human Rights System, which, through the InterAmerican
Court of Human Rights and the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, can be
said to also have created a regional protection regime for refugees and other
migrants within its human rights framework.
regime coexistence would take place in relation to the Cartagena Declaration
regime and national regimes of refugee protection. Given that, as mentioned, 16
countries have already incorporated the Cartagena Declaration into their
national laws, it could be argued that this regime co-existence has not only
expanded protection but also transformed, at least in the national level, a
commitment transforming a soft law instrument into hard law at least
If, on the
one hand, one can thus see the Cartagena Declaration Regime as having four main
pillars – regional definition, revision processes, connection to human rights
and the dialogue with other regimes and systems -, on the other, it is also
possible to identify three elements that complement this regime, in what is
called the “spirit of Cartagena”, understood in relation to: 1) a human rights
approach to refugee protection, which is simultaneously a pillar of the
Cartagena Declaration regime and a characteristic of the “spirit of Cartagena”,
2) an expanded humanitarian space and 3) a constant effort to assess the region’s
needs and challenges in refugee protection.
of Cartagena” can be said to be in place in the debates and adoption of the
Cartagena Declaration but also in the development of the regime derived from
it, and even influencing other actions regarding the protection of refugees and
other migrants (such as humanitarian visas and other alternative pathways for
legal stays for instance (Jubilut 2017)) in Latin America. That is to say, the
‘spirit of Cartagena’ and the Cartagena Declaration regime’s pillars can be
considered to be lasting impacts and legacies of the Cartagena Declaration in
the protection of refugees in Latin America.
Challenges in Refugee Protection in Latin America
even though the regional setting showcases the existence of comprehensive
regimes of refugee protection, and a regional optic of ascertaining human
rights and the implementation of asylum; recent events have – as noted above –
created a scenario of contrasting and competing logics, i.e. one the one hand, the
Cartagena Declaration and its regime, alongside other structures of protection
in the region, and, on the other, the adoption of policies, rhetorics and
actions against refugees and other migrants’ protection.
start to be explained by the fact that Latin America remains a region that, at
the same time, produces and receives refugees (UNHCR, 2019: 68 and 74), and
recently has been experiencing a combination of these realities: with a record
number of intra-regional refuges, originating mainly from Venezuela and the
North of Central America, but also encompassing forced migration from other
places (Jubilut and Jarochinski 2018; Jubilut 2016).
in numbers has occurred alongside the rise of populist governments, as well as
right-wing local and/or national governments, which either did not impress
great significance on refugee protection or adopted a “hard line” in migration
governance. The combination of these factors has led to human rights
violations, restrictive migratory laws, and violations of Refugee Law (both in
its international and regional standards).
that have been the preferred avenue by States to
not apply the regional definition to intra-regional refugees but
rather create complementary protection pathways (Jubilut and Fernandes 2018),
which could be seen as an implementation of the “spirit of Cartagena” if they
were being applied only to migrants other than refugees, and not as a way to
diminish protection. Moreover, and in a opposite policy, some countries have
not created any strategy to deal with the increased flows, leaving all migrants
to apply for refugee status, thus overburdening existing systems and regimes.
Furthermore, specific situations have amplified the vulnerability of some
migrants, such as in the cases of statelessness persons’ protection (from Haiti
in the Dominican Republic), undocumented children migration (from the North of
Central America and Venezuela) and migration of indigenous persons (from
One can see
then that competing and contrasting logics are in play in Latin America, at the
time of the 35th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration. It is relevant to point
out this scenario so that setbacks are not allowed, and the regime created by
the document is not jeopardized. Moreover, recalling the Cartagena Declaration
and the regime it has created, as well as how it is a framework of protection
that dialogues with others in the region, helps to highlight that there is a
grammar of protection in Latin America, with strong normative structures, and
if refugees and other migrants are not being adequately protected it is more a
result of lack of political will and of political choices than a lack of
regimes and traditions of humanitarian action, granting of asylum and refugee
here, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration and its legacy for the protection of
refugees in Latin America, which spams from the document itself to the creation
of a regional regime as well as impregnates the region with the “spirit of
Cartagena”, is more relevant than ever. The lasting impacts of the Document as
well as the longevity of a regional commitment to refugee protection should be
celebrated, especially in the occasion of its 35th anniversary.
However, practical challenges remain, particularly in light of new forced
displacement flows in the region that bring to light contrasting scenarios for
refugee protection in Latin America.
On the one
hand, the most positive characteristics of the region that create Latin
America’s grammar of refugee protection, are: the long-lasting tradition of
asylum; a human rights approach (that can lead to integral protection); the
spirit of Cartagena; and the coexistence of the Cartagena Declaration Regime,
the InterAmerican Human Rights system for the protection of refugees and other
(forced) migrants, and national regimes that have adopted expanded refugee
status definition as well as humanitarian policies and complementary protection
alternatives. On the other, however, anti-migrants rhetorics from around the
world also reverberate in Latin America, alongside discriminatory and xenophobic
behavior, as well as, the adoption of practices and rules that go against
international commitments, so as to escape the reach of International Refugee
Law (as with non-refoulement and adequate Refugee Status
Determination procedures) or International Human Rights standards (in the
protection of children and against torture and detention, for instance).
It seems, thus, that even though the instruments (normative and otherwise) are in place, the main challenges arise from the lack of political will to implement them. That is why highlighting the relevance of the Cartagena Declaration by celebrating its 35th anniversary, can be an important reminder to the region of its commitments to refugee protection, asylum and human rights.
 See Cartagena Declaration 2ndh preambular
 See, for instance, Cartagena Declaration 4th and 8th preambular
paragraphs, as well as its second, third and eighth conclusions.
 UNHCR was represented in the Colloquium that
adopted the Declaration and is mentioned throughout the document.
 By Resolution AG/RES. 774 (XV-O/8S) of 1985,
which highlights the importance of the Declaration and recommends that all
Member States apply it to refugees in their territory (paragraph 3) . Available
 See Cartagena Declaration 8th preambular
 For the different wordings adopted by States
in incorporating this aspect of the Cartagena Declaration, see: Piovesan and
 For even broader possibilities of
application of this criterion see Weerasinghe (2018).
 The topic was also present in the Cartagena
Declaration (conclusion 9).
 All of the documents from the Cartagena
Declaration regime, as well as the practices of the InterAmerican Human Rights
system, national practices in the region, regional schemes for the protection
of migrants that can also benefit refugees, as well as the main current
displacement flows from the region, are the objects of study of upcoming volume
edited by Jubilut, Vera Espinoza and Mezzanotti (forthcoming).
 For more on solidarity as a guiding
principle of the Cartagena Declaration regime and a legacy from it (as well as
the flexibility of sovereignty impose by the Document) see: Jubilut, Apolinário
and Jarochinski (2014).
 For more on this see the upcoming volume
edited by Jubilut, Vera Espinoza and Mezzanotti (forthcoming).
Comissariado das Nações Unidas para Refugiados (ACNUR). Protección de
Refugiados en América Latina: Buenas Prácticas Legislativas, n/d.
Bruce; Cantor, David J. (Eds.). Human Rights and the Refugee Definition
– Comparative LegalPractice and Theory, 2016.
David. J.; Barichello, Stefania E. The inter-American human rights system: A
new model for integrating refugee and complementary protection. The
International Journal of Human Rights, n. 17, 2013: 689 – 706.
Fischel de Andrade, José Henrique. Forced
Migration in South America. In: Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. et al. (Eds.). The
Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, 2014:
Filippo. Foreword: Regional solidarity and commitment to protection in Latin
America and the Caribbean. Forced Migration Review, 56, 2017: 4-5.
Silva, João Carlos; Jubilut, Liliana L. Venezuelans in Brazil: Challenges of
Protection. E-International Relations, 2018.
Liliana L.; Apolinário, Silvia M. O. S. A população refugiada no Brasil:
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Liliana L; Apolinário, Silvia M. O. S; Jarochinski Silva, João Carlos. In: The
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In: Jubilut, Liliana Lyra. Refugee Protection in Brazil and Latin America –
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Liliana L.; Vera Espinoza, Marcia; Mezzanotti, Gabriela (Eds). Latin
America and Refugee Protection: regimes, logics and challenge, forthcoming.
Liliana L.; Zamur, Andrea C. G. Brazil’s Refugee Resettlement: Power,
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Written by Nicki Kindersley (University of Cambridge) & Øystein Rolandsen (PRIO)
This text first appeared on Security Dialogue and is re-posted here.Read the full article this blog post is based on here. The article is an outcome of a larger project supported by the Research Council of Norway: “Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice“. Nicki Kindersley and Øystein Rolandsen are featured in the Security Dialogue Podcast Series where they speak about their article, and the podcast can be accessed here.
Why are local communities so often targeted in South Sudan’s civil wars? How do their attackers justify violence against people defined as civilians in international law? In our article in the current issue of Security Dialogue, we answer these questions by placing recent brutalities within a longer history of conflict logics and practices in South Sudan’s modern history of violent governance. These evolving local norms inform how armed actors engage with residents in today’s conflicts.
State governance has always been violent towards South Sudan’s
populations. Since slave raiders and traders shaped the first colonial
incursions in the mid-1800s, ordinary people have been strategic assets to be
managed and exploited. As such populations are not just legitimate targets in
conflicts, but key resources to capture and control. State power was extended
over Sudan’s peripheries in the 1900-1920s through mass forced displacement and
depopulation of strategic areas (such as Kafia Kingi); through collective
‘punishment’ of defensive populations (for example, the aerial bombardment of
Nuer communities); and violent raiding by proxy fighters from other
communities, turning residents against each other. Sudan’s civil wars in the
South from the 1960s continued these practices. Communities were targeted
collectively based on ethnicity and imputed loyalty, displaced, and forced into
camps for ‘protection’ and control, by both government and rebel forces.
Today’s UN Protection of Civilians
camps, the first UN bases in the world to be turned into protection camps for
local populations, are a part of this long history of violent governance. These
armed groups continue to see the population in contested areas as part of the
war, where everyone is (potentially) part of the collective enemy, and where
controlling desperate poor populations is also a convenient way of gaining
access to external aid and cheap labour. It thus makes more sense that, since
2013, armed groups have targeted populations in forced displacements,
collective ‘punishments’, violent raids and armed control of refugee camps.
The article also shows how this
distinction between armed combatants and those defined as civilians in
international law is further blurred by violent governance tactics since the
colonial period. Successive governments have actively sought to incorporate the
population into their militarised security apparatus. During colonial rule, men
and women were pressed into service as enslaved or otherwise dependent
servants, soldiers, and workers in fortified and militarised garrison towns.
After Sudan’s independence in 1956, the government encouraged or coerced
residents into acting as spies, ‘national guards’, informers and ‘local
protection’ forces. This militarised security state continues, and continues to
blur the South Sudanese definition of civilian.
This analysis does not excuse the
massive and systematic violence against the general population of South Sudan.
But without due consideration of these deeply engraved historical systems and
logics of violent governance, today’s brutal conflicts become incomprehensible.
Any attempt to implement protection measures for populations affected by war
needs to be informed by a proper understanding of these local logics of
conflict. In this logic, the UN in South Sudan is already another
military-political authority managing local populations and controlling their
movements. With the NGOs servicing them and the UN peacekeepers guarding them,
these PoC camps are a strategic political asset to be managed and exploited.
Written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/University of Oslo) & Dennis Dijkzeul (Ruhr University Bochum)
This text first appeared on the TheGlobal and is re-posted here. The blog post draws on the introduction to a 2019 special issue on humanitarian governance by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, ‘A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises’ published by Disasters.
Synopsis: While localization is high on the agenda for humanitarian actors, at present, humanitarian governance does not support the localization agenda. To understand better why, we explore three issues underpinning humanitarian governance: the problem construction, consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians. We conclude that the localization agenda is important, but for it to succeed a fundamental change of the humanitarian system is needed.
Humanitarian crises conjure up a specific world of urgency and
emergency populated by a set of ‘doers’: international organisations and
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), heroic humanitarian workers, the
military and the private sector, as well as donors. At the same time, it is
well known that affected populations primarily rescue themselves, with the
assistance of local civil society and host governments. Reflecting that reality,
since the World Humanitarian
2016, ‘localization’ of aid has become a mantra of the sector. Yet, things
appear not to be going so well. In this blog we try to provide conceptual
pointers for explaining why. In line
with Michael Barnett’s insightthat humanitarian
governance voluntarily or involuntarily produces or contributes to some kind of
societal order, we ask in this blog what kind of order is being imagined and
produced through humanitarian governance in relation to the localization
In general, there are two versions of humanitarian governance in
circulation: the narrow version is concerned with the provision of immediate
relief to human suffering. This traditional humanitarianism does not attempt to
politically change the world or take a position on conflicts, but instead uses
the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and
independence to gain access to people in need and alleviate their suffering. In
this sense, it operates as a stopgap measure: it only addresses needs and does
not judge openly the conflict that causes the suffering. The second and more
extensive interpretation signifies a broader concern for human welfare and
incorporates political change to address the root causes of suffering through
human rights, conflict resolution, emancipatory movements, and development
In everyday practice and discourse, both interpretations of
humanitarian governance are used in parallel, which leads to confusion or
disagreement about the goals and roles of humanitarian action. This also means
that what we mean by localization is essentially unclear. To illuminate the
implications of this discrepancy, we consider three critical issues for the
localization agenda, namely: humanitarian problem construction, the
consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians.
The paradoxes of top-down humanitarian problem constructions
Once a humanitarian emergency is declared, it thenshapes not only who is supposed to act but what is supposed to be done.
Humanitarian problem construction involves the conceptualization of social and
political needs, crises, and risks as ‘humanitarian problems’; it also entails
new and/or expanded conceptualizations of humanitarian suffering that call on
humanitarians to be present on the ground with their staff, values, and
toolkits; carrying with it the assumption that humanitarians and their toolkits
are relevant, useful, and welcome. Underpinning and reinforcing this emphasis
on emergency is the invention and promulgation of a technical vocabulary. For
example, while we have now become accustomed to the use of ‘L3’ as a way of
describing the worst emergencies, it is only from the introduction of ‘L’
levels in the UN humanitarian reform
of 2011 that
L3 has worked as a global symbol to designate the most serious level of crisis
and help humanitarians create a globally stratified map of emergencies.
So far, the localization agenda has not substantially altered the conceptualization of social and political needs, nor of crises and risk. To push
the localization agenda forward, humanitarian governance should pay more
attention to local definitions of crises, risks and ‘appropriate’ aid, so that
humanitarian problems are no longer just defined by professionals, who then
control the planning and distribution of resources.
In a similar vein, we are witnessing the persistence of a classic
problem of humanitarian action, namely that the humanitarian sector legitimizes
its interventions by producing higher numbers of both individuals in need and
concomitant funding needs to legitimate humanitarian requests and
interventions. This includes, for example, the mortality
surveys in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Iraq; contestations over maternal deaths; the 2005non-faminein Niger;
exaggerated population counts in refugee camps and more recently talk about ‘unprecedented numbers of refugees’. This has a paradoxical effect on the humanitarian sector.
On the one hand, the very limited funding for local NGOs is also
increasingly recognized as a structural impediment to localization. Data
released in the 2017
Global Humanitarian Assistance report showed that funding for local NGOs stayed very low, at 0.3 per
cent of tracked funding. Even when all local stakeholders are added together,
including governments, they still only accounted for two per cent of funding.
On the other hand, the identification of unmet needs led to continuous
expansion among international NGOs, a kind of ongoing mission creep, which is
an inadvertent consequence in line with the expansive nature of risk. These
categories and numbers leave the humanitarian sector in the double bind that it
is not doing enough while simultaneously being too expansive. In both cases, it
is falling short of its own and external normative expectations. The mortality
surveys in the DRC, for instance, showeda degree of suffering that
was unprecedented, but also led to debates about their validity and impact as a
justification for the expansion of humanitarian aid.
Consolidation and growth: where is the local?
In general, multi-mandate organizations follow the broader
interpretation of humanitarian governance and thus address a broader array of
problems, including the prevention of crises and linking relief and
development. The presence of different interpretations of governance has not
stopped and has probably facilitated the humanitarian sector’s growth and rapid
consolidation over the last three decades. Overall, the humanitarian ‘industry’ handled $27.3 billion in 2016, a six per
cent increase on 2015. The largest humanitarian NGOs now have thousands of
employees and annual turnover of many millions of dollars. While the
consolidation and growth of the humanitarian enterprise can be seen as a
success story for the humanitarian industry as such, the gap between available
resources and perceived humanitarian needs is portrayed as growing continually wider. Several scholars have pointed out
that this endemic and multi-faceted response ‘gap’—with respect to funding,
technical capacity, material goods, humanitarian access, or political will—is
the product of efforts to construct (and not discover) meaning. For example, it
takes analytical labor to define and construct humanitarians as ‘becoming’ unprepared or ‘unfit
Humanitarian actors are apt at describing and presenting ‘gaps’ as fundamental
threats to addressing needs and/or constructing a more humane world order. Once
again, local perspectives on this issue require more attention.
The sorting of civilians
A final issue which affects the meaning of localization concerns the sorting of civilians, which is currently in large
part shaped by considerations of risk and security as emanating from the global
war on terror and extremism. In qualitative terms, not only the language used
to describe the intended recipients of aid (victims, beneficiaries, communities
in crisis, clients, target groups, people in need, survivors, or customers) but
also the categories of protected civilians and the calculus of suffering
deployed to sort and select protectable civilians are in continuous flux.
Generally, the 1990s and 2000s saw a continuous expansion of legal and
political victim categories, such as internally displaced person (IDPs), and
this expansion continues with a discursive broadening of sexual violence as
mode of categorizing
‘humanitarian victims’, as it happened in Bosnia and the DRC, for example.
Importantly, a countertrend that is enabled both by the risk politics
of humanitarianism and the turn to technology is the parallel turn to
resilience thinking and the sorting of ‘protectable’ civilians, which
increasingly represents a shrinking of the categories of civilians that receive protection. In particular, resilience thinking puts the onus of
responsibility for being prepared for, or able to cope with, crises more on
local actors than on international ones, which can lead to a shrinking of the
categories of people that receive protection or other forms of aid. Yet, when
the capacities of these local actors need to be strengthened, this nevertheless
leads to an expansion of capacity-building activities by international
organizations involved in humanitarian work.
In sum, the way that humanitarian governance orders the humanitarian
field in terms of problem construction, consolidation and expansion, as well as
with sorting of civilians, does not yet support the localization agenda. The
localization agenda is important but if it is to be taken seriously, it needs
to go hand in hand with a far more fundamental change of the humanitarian
system than has happened so far.
Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO. Her work focuses on refugee resettlement, legal mobilization, humanitarian technology, innovation and accountability. She currently writes on the 22 July Norwegian terror attacks, humanitarianism and lawfare, and digital bodies in aid.
On October 23, 2019, 39 bodies were found inside a refrigerator lorry on an industrial estate in Essex. The vehicle was registered in Varna, Bulgaria, had entered the UK four days before and was driven by a man from Northern-Ireland. The victims – 38 adults and a teenager – were identified as Vietnamese. This incident is just the latest example of vehicle-induced migrant mass fatalities.
Are these deaths accidental, or a result of lethal
intentionality and if so, who is to blame? To reflect on the violence and
structured immobility practices that lead to these deaths, I take the
colloquial term ‘killer trucks’ as my point of departure. I juxtapose the
concept’s ordinary use –the deployment of trucks for vehicular ramming attacks
– with the regular occurrence of large numbers of individuals being found dead
inside trailers, trucks, lorries and vans. I contrast the concept of ‘vehicular
terror’ with ‘vehicular crypts’, whereby the cargo areas of lorries and trucks
become vaults facilitating stacked burials. I link the notion of a
widespread weaponization– the process through which an object that wasn’t
a weapon becomes one – of trucks to questions of how we estimate and explain
harm and danger. In this post I argue that we must link weaponization, and the
type of lethal intentionality embedded in the weaponization process, to broader
legal and political structures.
In recent years, commercial transport vehicles
have become securitized and reconceived as existential threats through their
use in urban terror attacks. Their presence is perceived
with suspicion and fear, as urban landscapes are remodeled through bollards and
security fencing. In accounts of vehicle ramming attacks in Berlin, London, Nice,
Stockholm and New York, the exterior of vehicles—cars, vans, trucks,
motorbikes—are construed as having innate qualities of mass and speed that make
them inherently dangerous and their presence potentially dangerous. While the
use of trucks as conduits for explosives and driving into crowds with lethal
intent are not new tactics, the lethality of recent attacks has engendered a
narrative focused on the ‘the terrifying
simplicity’ of these
attacks: we ‘now live in an era of
the weaponized truck’ whereby ‘Western audiences are
witnessing a transformation of the objects of everyday life into tools of
I suggest that this narrative of unpredictable
danger is ‘good to think with’ when it comes to critically reflecting on
vehicle-induced deaths and the ethics of the classification of the dead. When
looking at how trucks—by design intended to serve logistical purposes—become
lethal objects, or ‘killer trucks’—attention to context is crucial. When
accounting for the rise of the ‘killer truck’ as a weapon of terror and
destruction, we must do so with a careful view to positionality, materiality
and political context. We must ask: what is a weapon? What is weaponization of
everyday objects such as trucks; and who is harmed through this weaponization?
My proposition is that these questions enable the
deaths of a different set of victims to come into view: During terror attacks,
it is the exterior capabilities of trucks and lorries that produce deadly
impact. The weaponization of trucks can also be considered through the lens of
interior materiality. Here it’s not a presence of lethal
factors such as mass and speed but a lack –of human
consideration and air but also of legality and mobility rights – that produce
lethality. It also makes visible how it is not only instances of individual
criminality but also legal regimes governing mobility which produce harm and
The Essex case is not exceptional, but part of a
global pattern whereby trucks have become deadly crypts for migrants’ bodies.
Examples abound: In 2003, 17 ‘illegal migrants’ from Mexico, Central
America and the Dominican Republic died through dehydration, hyperthermia and
suffocation inside an airtight container of an eighteen wheeler. In 2008, 54 Burmese migrants suffocated inside a truck in
Thailand. The surviving migrants were charged with illegal entry. In 2015, in an event known as ‘the
Parndorf tragedy’, 71 people were found suffocated at the back of a
Slovenian meat lorry outside the village of Parndorf in Austria. The lorry was
used by a Budapest-based trafficking ring which smuggled thousands of people from Hungary into
Austria and Germany in 2015.
We must pay attention to how the ‘killer’
capabilities of material objects are configured through the regulatory sorting
regimes aimed at people and mobilities. Crypts are ‘an extreme class of the artifacts that form the material culture
of clandestine migration’, they are containers forming units with migrant
bodies, representing ‘frequently nothing more than a transitional space within
a load of cargo.’ Structural factors such as ever stricter and more punitive migration regimes and aggressive
counter-terrorism measures force people into cattle trucks, meat trucks,
refrigerator trucks, moving vans – and produce the dangers these individuals
face inside these crypts.
An important source of danger is time: speed and risk are inherently interlinked and there are
different levels of risk involved in distinct modes of transport. The fastest
modes of transport – airplanes – tend to be the safest, while the slowest are
generally the most dangerous. Trucks and lorries – relatively slow modes of
transport –are part of what Ruben Andersson (2014) calls the ‘illegality industry’. The slowness entails migrants being helplessly
stuck inside trucks following unpredictable itineraries and being parked or
abandoned at remote locations along the routes.
In the Parndorf case, the driver had by
accident sealed the doors, so no air could come in. Police
telephone intercepts –recorded but not analyzed in time – showed that the
Afghan ringleader had later ordered the driver not to open the doors while the
migrants could be heard screaming in the back. The charges in the
Parndorf case included charges of human trafficking, torture and ‘homicide with
particular cruelty’. According to prosecutors, refugees were ‘often carried in closed, dark and
airless van unsuitable for passenger transport, in crowded, inhuman,
excruciating conditions’. In June 2018, four human smugglers from Afghanistan
and Bulgaria were jailed for 25 years in the Kescemet city court in Hungary.
While Parndorf, and other smuggling cases
resulting in mass deaths, relate to intentional killings carried out by
organized crime, the lethal intentionality in these cases is not only that
of not opening doors, checking that there is enough
ventilation and maintaining a temperature adequate for human survival. When we
think about killer trucks, the processes through which they are weaponized and
notions of unprecedented danger, we must also consider that lethal
intentionality is also what creates migrant crypts in the first place, and that it emerges at
the interface of legal regimes governing offenses related to smuggling,
trafficking, crime, terror – and mobility.
Written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/University of Oslo) & Dennis Dijkzeul (Ruhr University Bochum)
This text first appeared on Global Policy and is re-posted here. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Dennis Dijkzeul reflect on some of the new directions in humanitarian governance and the ambiguity of some of the principal techniques.
According to an influential conception, humanitarian governance entails ‘the
increasingly organized and internationalized attempt to save the lives, enhance
the welfare, and reduce the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable
populations.’ The actors involved in humanitarian governance include affected
populations, civil society, host governments, the military, the private sector,
international organisations and NGOs, and donors. Much of this governance is
associated with the intended as well as the unintended consequences of
In particular, these unintended consequences
have brought about a quest for institutional or moral improvement of
humanitarian action. Presented as progress narratives, these initiatives – or
techniques – range from efforts to enhance accountability, for example through
legalization, to offering better technological solutions. However, in recent
years, the techniques of humanitarian governance are increasingly also
incorporated into narratives of decline, where attempts to govern
humanitarianism is also seen to hinder humanitarian access, hamper aid delivery
and undermine the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality,
neutrality, and independence. This blog post reflects on some of the new
directions in humanitarian governance and the ambiguity of some of the
principal techniques of such governance.
The Governance Techniques
Accountability to improve behavior. Starting from the mid-1990s, a number of
sector-wide transparency and accountability initiatives (e.g., SPHERE, the Humanitarian
Accountability Partnership (HAP) International, People in Aid, Groupe URD’s
Compass, and more recently the Core Humanitarian Standard) have influenced
humanitarian organisations. Criticism has been directed at ‘the accountability
industry’ for emphasizing standardization and technocratization, which hide the
actual politics, and for prioritizing upwards accountability to donors at the
expense of true, participatory accountability processes with communities in
crisis. Still, the quest for accountability remains a core normative ambition
and shapes attempts to govern in the humanitarian arena.
As part of this, humanitarians are
increasingly ‘code of conducted up’, in particular with respect to intimate
personal relationships and financial transparency. What would previously be
deemed either private behavior – such as substance abuse – or individual moral
and personal failure – such as buying sex – is increasingly construed as a risk-generating activity threatening
specific operations, organisational reputations, and the legitimacy of the
sector itself. Despite the Oxfam sex scandal, there is not sufficient evidence – or a
concerted push to establish such evidence – on whether the humanitarian sector
is currently doing better in terms of its accountability.
The technological turn. Moreover, the ongoing digitization and
datafication of humanitarian action have become central techniques of
humanitarian governance, and increasingly shape our understanding of and response to
emergencies. Digitization is dramatically changing the way aid agencies provide
assistance, from blockchain technology to provide cash transfers to the
use of biometrics with iris scans and fingerprinting to
register and track beneficiary assistance. This has led to faster information
exchanges and greater transparency about what is happening on the ground. At
the same time, the integration of information technology has enabled an
increasing degree of remote management, which has changed the dynamic between
communities in crisis, responders, regional offices, and headquarters.
The technologization of humanitarian space
have also brought on a much closer relationship with the private sector: big
tech outfits as well as small startups. These actors also have limited
experience with and knowledge of the ends and objectives of the humanitarian
sector, while pursuing their own financial objectives with respect to
commodification and use of data. In addition, the attendant security challenges are slowly receiving more attention.
Spyware is being deployed by governments and warlords to provide surveillance
of humanitarian officials and civilians. Data collected by
humanitarian organizations may be stolen and misused by the same actors. Indifference,
incompetence and bad planning might result in data breaches.
Juridification. Humanitarian governance is increasingly
undertaken through law and law-like language as actors are held
accountable through legal or quasi-legal mechanisms. One important trend is
the evolving body of international disaster response law (IDRL) aiming to eliminate bureaucratic barriers
to the entry of relief personnel, goods and equipment, and the operation of
relief programmes, as well as addressing regulatory failures to monitor and
correct problems of quality and coordination in disasters.
A different kind of legalisation is taking
place through the evolution and institutionalization of a legal standard for a
‘duty of care’ for humanitarian staff. The 2015 Steve
Dennis versus the Norwegian Refugee Council case from the Oslo District court,
have shifted the conceptualisation of the duty of care standard for
humanitarian staff from being a good practice standard in human resource
management to becoming a standard considered from and articulated through the
language of law and liability. Although it is positive the humanitarian
organizations need to work out the operational details of their duty of care,
it can also lead to risk-avoidance or an increase in
There is also an increasingly frequent
assertion that ‘humanitarianism is being criminalized’ (here, here, here or here). According to the humanitarian narrative
of ‘the criminalization of humanitarian space’, such criminalization can hamper
access to affected communities and compromises the ability of humanitarian actors
to deliver principled aid to fulfill the humanitarian imperative of assisting
according to need. This includes the prohibition of material support for
terrorism, that was extended to include humanitarian advocacy in the 2010 US
Supreme Court decision Holder v. the Humanitarian Law Project and the use of
the US False Claims Act to go after humanitarian NGOs operating in the occupied
Palestinian territories. Based on complaints from a private individual In 2017
and 2018, the American University in Beirut (AUB) and the Norwegian People’s
Aid (NPA) have
reached costly settlements with the US government. Oxfam is currently facing a
$ 160 million legal threat under the False Claims Act. Several more
cases are under seal.
In parallel, there has been a broad trend
towards to criminal prosecution of volunteer workers who have offered material
support or protection – such as housing, transportation, food, education or
rescue – to asylum seekers and refugees (here, here or here). Humanitarian work is here being construed as human smuggling or trafficking. At the same
time, some types of criminalization are viewed as beneficial to ensure that
humanitarians do no harm to beneficiaries or each other, for example with respect to sexual harassment and
This blog post draws on our introduction to a 2019 special issue on
humanitarian governance “A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order
in humanitarian crises” published by Disasters. As discussed in the
introduction and further analyzed in this blog post, it is ironic that the
quest to deal with the unintended consequences of humanitarian action, has
unintended effects as well. First, the initiatives listed above are often
difficult to implement. Second, they also bear the risk of technocratization:
these techniques are not neutral; they may hamper participation and obscure
power politics. As illustrated by criminalization, some governance attempts can
even contribute to a shrinking of humanitarian space. Third, they can lead to a
lack of respect for the humanitarian principles, so that the protection of
people in need is not well ensured.
Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is a socio-legal scholar with a particular interest in the politics of innovation and technology in the humanitarian space. She is a research professor in humanitarian studies at PRIO, and a professor in the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo.
Children are becoming the objects of a multitude of monitoring devices—what are the possible negative ramifications in low resource contexts and fragile settings?
The recent incident of a UNHCR official tweeting a photo of an Iraqi refugee girl holding a piece of paper with all her personal data, including family composition and location, is remarkable for two reasons. First, because of the stunning indifference and perhaps also ignorance displayed by a high-ranking UN communications official with respect to a child’s personal data. However, the more notable aspect of this incident has been the widespread condemnation of the tweet (since deleted) and its sender, and her explanation that it was “six years old”. While public criticism has focused on the power gap between humanitarians and refugees and the precarious situation of Iraqi refugees, this incident is noteworthy because it marks the descent of a new figure in international aid and global governance: that of children’s digital bodies.
children are dependent, what technology promises most of all is almost
unlimited care and control: directly by parents but indirectly by marketing
agencies and tech companies building consumer profiles. As explained by the Deborah Lupton, in the political economy of
the global North (and, I would add, the global East), children are becoming the objects of a
multitude of monitoring devices that generate detailed data about them. What
are the possible negative ramifications in low resources contexts and fragile
settings characterized by deep-seated oversight and accountability deficits?
The rise of
experimental practices: Ed. Tech, babies and biometrics
a long history of problematic educational transplants in aid context, from dumping used text books to culturally or
linguistically inappropriate material. The history of tech-dumping in disasters is much more recent,
but also problematically involves large-scale testing of educational technology
platforms. While practitioners complain about relevance, lack of participatory
engagement and questionable operability in the emergency context, ethical
aspects of educational technology (Ed. Tech), data extraction—and how the
collection of data from children and youth constitute part of the merging of
aid and surveillance capitalism—are little discussed.
recent trend concerns infant biometric identification to help boost
vaccination rates. Hundreds of thousands of children die annually due to
preventable diseases, many because of inconsistencies in the provision of
vaccine programs. Biometric identification is thus intended to link children
with their medical records and overcome the logistical challenges of
paper-based systems. Trials are now ongoing or planned for India, Bangladesh
and Tanzania. While there are still technical challenges in accurately
capturing the biometric data of infants, new biometric techniques capture
fingers, eyes, faces, ears and feet. In addition to vaccines, uses for child
biometrics include combatting aid fraud, identifying missing children and
combatting identity theft.
data is increasingly extracted from children through the
miniaturization and personalization of ICT technology. Infant and child
biometrics are often coupled with tracking devices in the form of wristbands,
necklaces, earpieces, and other devices which the users carry for extended
periods of time.
the board, technology initiatives directed at children are usually presented as
progress narratives, with little concern for unintended consequences. In the
economy of suffering, children and infants are always the most deserving
individuals, and life-saving interventions are hard to argue against.
Similarly, the urgency of saving children functions as a call to action that
affords aid and private sector actors room to maneuver with respect to testing
and experimentation. At the same time, the mix of
gadget distribution and data harvesting inevitably become part of a global data
economy, where patterns of structural inequality are reproduced and
the massive technologization of aid targeting children, so far, no critical
thinking has gone into considering the production of children’s digital bodies
in aid. The use of digital technologies creates corresponding “digital bodies”—images, information,
biometrics, and other data stored in digital space—that represent the physical
bodies of populations affected by conflict and natural hazards, but over which
these populations have little say or control. These “digital bodies”
co-constitute our personalities, relationships, legal and social personas—and
today they have immense bearing on our rights and privileges as individuals and
citizens. What is really different about children’s digital bodies? What is the
specific nature of risk and harm these bodies might incur?
non-aid context, critical data researchers and privacy advocates are only just
beginning to direct attention to these practices, in particular to the array of
specific harms they may encounter, including but not limited to the erosion of
question of testing unfinished products on children is deeply contentious: the
possibility that unsafe products may be trialed in fragile and low resource
settings under different requirements than those posed by rich countries is
highly problematic. On the other hand, parachuting and transplanting
digital devices from the global North and East to the global South without any
understanding of local needs, context and adaption practices is—based on the
history of technological imperialism—ineffective, disempowering, a misuse of
resources and, at worst, could further destabilize fragile school systems.
often, in aid tech targeting children, the potential for digital risk and harm
for children is ignored or made invisible. Risk is phrased as an issue of data
security and malfunction and human manipulation of data. Children—especially in
low-resource settings—have few opportunities to challenge the knowledge
generated through algorithms. They also have scant techno-legal consciousness
with respect to how their personal data is being exploited, commodified and
used for decisions about their future access to resources, such as healthcare,
education, insurance, welfare, employment, and so on. There is the obvious risk
of armed actors and other malicious actors accessing and exploiting data; but
there are also issues connected to wearables, tablets and phones being used as
listening devices useful for surveilling the child’s relatives and careers. It
is incumbent on aid actors to understand both the opportunities posed by new
technologies, as well as the potential harms they may present—not only during
the response, but long after the emergency ends.
Conclusion: time to
turn to the CRC!
mainstreaming of a combination of surveillance and data extraction from
children now taking place in aid, ranging from education technology to infant
biometrics means that critical discussions of the ethical and legal
implications for children’s digital bodies are becoming a burning issue.
The do no
harm principle is a key ethical guidance post across fields of development,
humanitarianism and global health. The examples above illustrate the need for
investment in ethics and evidence on the impact of development and application
of new technologies in low resource and fragile settings. Practitioners
and academics need to be alert to how the framing of structural problems shifts
to problematizations being amenable to technological innovation and
intervention and the interests of technology stakeholders. But is that
Children’s Rights Convention of 1989 represented a watershed moment in thinking
children’s right to integrity, to be heard and to protection of their physical
bodies. Article 3.1 demands that “In all actions concerning children, whether
undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law,
administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the
child shall be a primary consideration.” Time has now come to articulate and
integrate an understanding of children’s digital bodies in international aid
within this normative framework.
A simple, moving ceremony for the people who died at sea on 7
October, took place today in the small island of Lampedusa. Only a few days ago
Lampedusa commemorated the anniversary of the tragedy that occurred on 3
October 2013, when over 360 persons lost their lives in the Mediterranean
waters when the fishing boat transporting around 500 people sunk a few
hundred metres from the coast. Thousands of people have died in the
Mediterranean Sea in the past few years in an attempt to reach Europe. What
happened two days ago was only the most recent episode in this human-made,
According to the latest figures,
at least 30 people, including an infant, lost their lives on 7 October. Many
are still missing. All the 13 bodies that were initially pulled out of the sea
were women. The survivors have only identified four of them.
Raised anchor in Sfax, the boat got into
trouble a few miles from the coast of Lampedusa. The engine stopped working
properly, and water started flooding into the bottom of the boat where a group
of Sub-Saharan women were sitting with their children. The boat capsized when
approached by the coast guard, pouring all the Sub-Saharans and
Tunisians onboard in the water. Two Tunisian guys told me that, right before
the boat capsized, they have been able to through a pregnant woman on the coast
guard vessel. In the dark water, they said, it was chaos. “People who could not
swim tried to grab us. They can pull you down, they make you drown,” one of
them said. “The only thing you can do is to swim away and reach the
A sense of loss
pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make, but also
for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it.
Laura Nader once asked: “Is there anything more fundamental to what makes
humans human than ideas of right or wrong?” That is a good question. Every
discussion about migration, borders and refugees seems to be dominated by
pragmatic approaches: Is it convenient, in economic terms, for Europe to
welcome high numbers of migrants? Are they really “high numbers”? Are
protectionist national regulations in conflict with international law? Who is
legally responsible for the boats filled with migrants in need of help in the
Mediterranean? These are pertinent questions. Yet, they don’t address the core
issue, which is rather a matter of right and wrong. I struggle with the thought
of how anyone with a basic moral attitude towards humanity can think that it is
right that some people have passports and are free to move around while others
don’t even have a passport (or have a passport that “doesn’t count” in the
international mobility) and are denied this basic right.
Open borders is the
only possible answer to the current dismantling of the European project and,
more profoundly, of ideals of solidarity, fraternity and equality. We need open
borders simply because it is the right thing to do. It should not be contingent
on an analysis of pros and cons, or on considerations of an economic, legal and
political nature. The arrogant and violent language of a transnational class of
political figures, the tyranny of financial capitalism, the disintegration of
socialist ideologies, and the rising of a vulnerable underclass at the European
level has transformed a matter of right and wrong into a battle among the poor.
“Migrants steal our jobs”, “They receive more benefits than us”, “Italians first”
(tragically reproducing Donald Trump’s deplorable motto “America first”). These
discourses signal the victory of dominant classes over the subalterns. Local
populations in hotspot locations like Lampedusa have shown great solidarity in
the past years, often against the will of national governments. But
anti-migrant sentiments seem to prevail all over Europe at this point in
history. Qualitative studies have extensively demonstrated that irregular
migration is a huge business for those in power and for criminal organizations.
Whoever today reiterates ideologies of closed borders that hinders mobility
becomes complicit in a business whose profit is made from human suffering and
It is always
illuminating to try to explain complex things in simple ways. Now, try to
explain the politics of borders to a child. How can we explain to a child that
some people, who are in dire need, cannot cross a border to enjoy refuge and
care in search for a better life? Unscrupolous pragmatists would say that you
do that by explaining the child that we have to protect “us” first, that we
have to secure jobs for ourselves first, and that this is “our land”. I have
deep concerns about who that child will be tomorrow.
The Norwegian-registered vessel Ocean Viking, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, has recently been at the centre of a debate that has become dominated by one assumption: that search-and-rescue (SAR) operations are encouraging people to attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
The logic is problematic for
several reasons, and I will try to address some of them: 1) the statistics
suggest otherwise; 2) it ignores the wider picture – that a range of complex
factors drive people to flee their homes, with some heading towards the
Mediterranean; and 3) the theory is being used to legitimize non-rescue of
boats in distress.
A temptingly simple explanation
The logic has a name, the pull
factor – in other words, that SAR operations contribute to “pull” more people
to attempt the crossing. The power of this idea lies partly in how it provides
a simple and apparently clear-cut explanation for a complex problem — a problem
that we otherwise have a hard time understanding, and even harder time
addressing. It is also powerful because it is difficult to refute: it is hard
to know exactly what makes people decide to embark on this dangerous sea
crossing, and there are probably as many reasons as there are refugees and
In 2004, Erna Solberg, then
Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, argued against a local initiative in Trondheim, which sought
to provide food and accommodation to asylum seekers lacking refugee status.
Solberg claimed that the initiative would “in practice mean unfettered
immigration by people from the Horn of Africa”. Today the idea that any measure
intended to ensure a minimum level of subsistence for refugees or other
migrants will help “pull” more people in the same direction pervades European
policy on migration, from Greece and France to Norway.
The pull factor and SAR operations
particular, the legacy of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum has served to boost
the pull-factor theory about SAR missions in the Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum
was established in response to a major shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013,
which was described by high-ranking EU politicians and the Italian president as
a “shame” for Europe. Mare Nostrum was run by the Italian navy as a
“military-humanitarian” operation. The number of refugees and other migrants
who attempted to make the crossing had already begun to rise before the
operation started, and even while Mare Nostrum was saving tens of thousands of
lives at sea, the numbers continued to rise.
quickly concluded that the increase was linked to the presence of the SAR
operation, and that Mare Nostrum was directly and indirectly encouraging more
people to make the crossing. This allegation, which was seen at the time as
controversial, has nonetheless become almost conventional wisdom in today’s
What do the numbers tell us?
researchers have examined the statistical relationship between the numbers of
migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and SAR capacity. One study, conducted by Elias Steinhilper and Rob Gruitjers,
looks at the period between late 2013 and 2017. They divide this period into
three periods: an initial period with high SAR capacity (October 2013 – October
2014); a subsequent period with low SAR capacity following the launch of the
Frontex-led Operation Triton (November 2014 – May 2015); and a third period
with high SAR capacity (Triton II with increased SAR capacity, plus more
vessels operated by NGOs). The numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean
began to increase before Mare Nostrum was implemented, and continued to
increase after it was shut down and throughout the period of low SAR capacity.
In fact, the numbers increased most sharply during the period of low SAR
capacity, rather than during the two periods with high SAR capacity. This same
period also saw the sharpest increase in the number of drownings, compared with
the periods before and after.
still ongoing, study conducted by Matteo
Villa at ISPI in Milan, is examining the number of migrants leaving
Libya in 2019 compared with the availability of SAR vessels on the actual dates
the migrants’ boats left shore. The findings show that the likelihood of boats
leaving Libya is not affected by the availability of SAR vessels, but rather by
wind and weather conditions. Figures from the IOM and UNHCR show that so far
this year, on average, 31 migrants leave shore on days when SAR vessels are
operating, against 41 migrants on days with no SAR vessels.
A narrow perspective
while these figures sow doubt about the existence of any direct link, it is
important to point out that the theory itself, assuming that the availability
of x number of SAR vessels affects the number of people attempting the sea
crossing, is built on a problematic premise. The thinking is based on a very
narrow perspective, which views SAR vessels as a unique factor in a world where
the availability of more or fewer SAR vessels is the sole factor influencing an
apparently inexhaustible number of migrants ready to attempt the crossing. The
wider picture, with its multiple factors that either hinder migration or make
it possible or necessary for people to leave their homes, is too complex to
understand and too difficult to do anything about. This line of thinking posits
NGOs’ activities as the simple explanation for an otherwise incomprehensible
situation, and thereby also the factor that needs to be addressed in order to
resolve the situation.
Humanitarian rhetoric used to legitimize not saving
problem with this hypothesis however is not only that it appears to be
unfounded and based on a narrow perspective, but that it is being used to
legitimize both the closed ports and an active policy of not coming to the
rescue of vessels in distress. There is in fact a duty, enshrined in the
international law of the sea, to provide assistance to vessels in distress and
take the rescued to a safe harbour.
of one’s political standing, it is no easy matter to argue against saving lives
at sea. That is also why many of those advancing this argument. are trying to
prove that SAR operations will “entice” more people to attempt the crossing,
and thereby putting more migrants at greater risk. As such, the policy of
non-rescue is presented as a policy that protects more people from drowning.
hindering the operations of SAR vessels will not save the lives of more
migrants, and it will also not address the complex causes of displacement and
Written by Sean Martin McDonald (Digital Public, FrontlineSMS, Duke Center on Law & Technology, Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab)
Sean McDonald argues that the humanitarian sector has much to offer the technology industry, and explores the relationship between the two. This article first appeared on Centre for International Governance Innovation, and is reposted here.
About the author: Sean Martin McDonald is the co-founder of Digital Public, which builds legal trusts to protect and govern digital assets. Sean’s research focuses on civic data trusts as vehicles that embed public interest governance into digital relationships and markets.
summer, the World Food Programme (WFP) — the world’s largest humanitarian
organization — got into a pitched standoff with Yemen’s Houthi government over,
on the surface, data governance. That standoff stopped food aid to 850,000
people for more than two months during the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Essentially, the WFP accused the Houthi government of redirecting aid to fund
the war and insisted that aid recipients participate in a biometric
identity-tracking system. The government responded by accusing the WFP of being
a front for intelligence operations; this was opportune, given the recent controversy over their relationship with Palantir. In the end, the parties agreed to use
the WFP’s fingerprint-based biometric identity system, despite reported flaws. The dispute, of course, wasn’t just
about data — it was about power, trust and the licence to operate.
While they may
seem worlds apart, the humanitarian sector has much to offer to the technology
industry. One of the things humanitarians and technologists have in common is
an extraordinary power to operate. For humanitarians, power takes the form of
an internationally agreed-upon right to intervene in conflicts – for some, with
legal immunity. And technology companies have the ability to project themselves
into global markets without the need for traditional government approval.
In one sense,
they’re opposites. Humanitarians have had to meticulously negotiate the
conditions of their access to conflict zones, based on non-intervention
principles, the terms of host country agreements with governments and,
increasingly, data-sharing agreements. In contrast, technology companies have
mostly enjoyed the freedom to operate globally without much negotiation,
taxation or regulation of any type. But, in recent years (as illustrated by the
WFP example) humanitarian organizations are starting to face the political and
regulatory implications of collecting, using, storing, sharing and deleting
data. Technology companies, it seems, are following the same path; they face
significant public pushback from nearly every corner of the world, from
international standards bodies and antitrust investigations to privacy fines
and class action lawsuits.
organizations have considerable history and experience negotiating for the
licence to operate in political and unstable contexts – which should inform the
people and companies designing data governance systems. Here are five places to
Licence to Operate
and technology companies can, and sometimes do, operate in places where the
government is actively resistant to their presence. While the stakes are often
lower for technology companies, the costs involved in negotiating licence to
operate country-by-country, and the technical complexity of maintaining product
offerings compatible with divergent political contexts, are high. As a result,
most technology companies launch offerings, and then react to, or defend
against governmental and public concerns. That approach is decidedly
opportunist, sacrificing long-term goodwill for short-term gains. Humanitarian
organizations have extensive debates around their right to access affected
populations, and under what conditions they earn that mandate. One thing
humanitarians can teach technology companies is the importance of contextual
negotiations and compromise to improve medium-term sustainability and long-term
The Political Complexity of Neutrality
The technology industry has become a popular political
scapegoat, often coming under fire for all kinds of bias. Technology companies
arbitrate complex social, commercial and political processes, some without any
dedicated operational infrastructure. The larger companies have built trust and
safety teams, content moderation units of varying types, and online dispute
resolution systems — all of which are designed to help users solve problems
related to platforms’ core functions. Each of these approaches has grown
significantly in recent years, but largely to mitigate damage created by the
technology sector itself – and often without transparency or the ability to
organizations, in contrast, are defined by their commitment to several core,
apolitical principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence and to
do no harm. The major humanitarian organizations have built organizations and
reputations for upholding those values, often amid violent conflict, that scale
globally. The technology industry, and in particular those seeking the licence
to provide public digital services or to govern public data — has a significant
amount to learn from the organizational structure of complex humanitarian
an organizational structure that manages common infrastructure and operational
hierarchies. Federation is second nature to technology companies when it comes
to code, but they are just learning how to federate and devolve their
organizational structures. Humanitarian organizations have been working through
devolved, federated organizational structures for decades — the International
Federation of the Red Cross, for example. There is a natural, and well-documented tension between independence and upholding
common standards across networks – especially in technology systems. Yet,
humanitarian organizations have built federated organizations that enable them
to operate globally, while availing themselves of the two most important
aspects of building trust: investment in local capacity and accountability.
In addition to
negotiating a licence to operate with governments, humanitarian organizations
often invest in domestic response capacity, and in recent years, localization
has become a driving strategic imperative. Humanitarians increasingly realize
they need to offer value beyond direct emergency aid, in order to foster more
durable solutions and earn the trust of communities. Technology companies often
make their products available internationally — and they often invest in
countries where they maintain a physical presence, but they rarely set up a
presence for the purposes of investing in local communities or in ways that
extend beyond their business interests. Technology organizations looking to
build trust and public approval in the ways they govern data could learn from
the humanitarian sector’s investments in local capacity, resilience and
humanitarian sector faces a lot of controversy over accountability, their
typical operating practice is to engage in direct negotiations with local
parties, which is different than technology companies, who generally start with
one set of terms they apply globally. The default terms of the technology
industry’s cardinal data governance contracts — terms of service agreements and
privacy policies — enable them to unilaterally change the terms of the
agreement. It’s impossible to rely on the terms of a contract that can change
at the whim of one party – or when the underlying goes bankrupt or gets
acquired. The actors within the technology industry seeking public trust in the
way they manage data can learn from the humanitarian sector about the need for
credible parity between negotiating parties and distributed accountability.
The good news
is that the humanitarian sector and the technology industry are well on their
way to forming deep alliances; the heads of several major humanitarian organizations have placed private sector coordination and co-creation at the centre of their
strategies. The World Economic Forum is laying the foundation for private companies to participate
in international governance bodies. And, private foundations and investors
increasingly play a role in shaping response efforts.
Unfortunately, these relationships may be a double-edged
sword. Technology companies can take advantage of humanitarian organizations’
unique licence to operate to work in regulated spaces, test new products
without repercussions and even justify the creation of invasive surveillance.
This new generation of relationships between the humanitarian organizations and
technology companies offer opportunities for each group to learn from the
other’s structural solutions on problems relating to shared issues of trust,
neutrality and global scale. Let’s hope that the technology industry chooses to
learn from the organizations that have spent the last century building, testing
and scaling organizational structures to deliver the best of humanity.