fresh new funding from the Norwegian Research Council’s NORGLOBAL program in
early 2019 to establish a Research Network on Humanitarian Efforts, it has
truly been an exciting year for NCHS. Through connecting and engaging with
academics, students and practitioners of humanitarianism in Norway and beyond, NCHS
has been able to serve its purpose as a platform for debate and exchange.
Looking back at 2019, three thematic areas stand out as having shaped the work of the Centre, as well as humanitarian agendas more broadly speaking. The themes migration, humanitarianism in conflict, and technologization of aid are likely to continue creating debate in humanitarian forums in the new year.
Displacement and migration
The UN OCHA Global Humanitarian Overview
2020 lays out how a
record number of people are currently displaced, and displacement typically
lasts for longer periods of time. In early 2019, 70.8 million people were
forcibly displaced, and twenty-eight of the 50 countries with the highest
numbers of new displacements faced both conflict and disaster-induced
policies in Europe and its neighboring regions has continued to be a hot topic
of discussion in 2019, and NCHS associates have contributed to the debate by scrutinizing
the securitization of migration and relatedly humanitarian aid, and the concept
of humanitarian containment. The latter reflects on humanitarian actors
restricting the movement of refugees and other migrants through provision of
certain services in a geographically restricted area, as explored by the
CMI-led project SuperCamp. In Norway, the Norwegian-registered
rescue vessel Ocean Viking operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS
Méditerranée reignited the migration debate,
as explored in this blog post by NCHS Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert on whether search-and-rescue (SAR)
operations encourage people to attempt crossing the Mediterranean. A public event co-organized by
NCHS, with PRIO and the University of Oslo, at Litteraturhuset, gathered
academics, humanitarians and Norwegian politicians from various political
parties to discuss whether there is any validity to the claim that SAR in the
Mediterranean act as a pull factor. The topic clearly engages, being amongst our
most highly attended events in 2019.Taking
a step back from air-conditioned conference rooms in a sobering reflection on migrant
deaths at sea after
attending a funeral ceremony at Lampedusa, NCHS co-Director Antonio De Lauri reminded
us all of the immense human tragedy which lays the foundation for this
politicized debate. In his words, “A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony.
Not only for the persons who didn’t make it, but also for the idea of Europe,
itself drowned with those who believed in it”.
movements of people are likely to continue shaping policies, humanitarian
response and academic debates also in 2020, we remain committed to gather
different types of interlocutors to learn from each other’s experiences.
political role of humanitarian aid and the relationship between security,
peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts was the main thematic focus of the NCHS Research Network mid-year
meeting at NUPI in
August 2019. Gathering researchers from various disciplines with different
entry-points to what ‘humanitarianism’ means, in particular when applied in a
situation of conflict, we were able to engage in a rich debate about concepts,
definitions, and their interpretations by various actors. Amongst these, an
important point of view is how policies developed by actors external to the
country where the conflict takes place are interpreted by local populations, as
highlighted by the seminar on the EU’s engagement in
external conflicts in the Sahel led by Morten Bøås.
assistance has traditionally been delivered in situations characterized by
instability and insecurity. In order to reach vulnerable populations,
humanitarians have thus had to establish lines of communication with local,
regional and national actors. Importantly, how these relationships are formed
and maintained risk affecting the way the humanitarians are perceived in terms
of upholding the principles of neutrality and impartiality. This balance,
including the concept of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ and whether independent humanitarian
assistance is possible in today’s conflict, were discussed at length during the NCHS annual meeting at CMI in November 2019. NCHS
co-Director Antonio De Lauri brought up some of the same themes when he gave the NMBU Annual Lecture in Global
Development in December 2019, titled “The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: Militarization,
conflicts continue to cause an immense need for humanitarian assistance, and
reforms on reducing silos and enhancing cooperation between humanitarian,
development and security efforts continue to play an important role in
humanitarian policy, so too will we continue to focus on analysis on what the
implications of the interlinkages may mean theoretically and in practice.
Data and ‘the digital’.
developments have shaped all corners of society over the past decades,
including humanitarianism and the delivery and governance of humanitarian aid. Yet,
uncritical application of new technologies in the humanitarian field risk unintended
negative consequences that may be harmful to local populations and aid workers
alike. In 2019, NCHS associates have continued examining the effects of
emerging technologies in the humanitarian field. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik’s paper on technologizing the fight against
sexual violence is
a good example, where Sandvik asks critical questions about the turn towards
technology in humanitarian aid, and the rise of ‘digital bodies’. In 2019, Sandvik
has contributed to developing the concept of ‘digital bodies’ further,
including related to children’s rights, and ‘humanitarian wearables’ at a
lecture at Oxford University.
relationship between the humanitarian sector and technology does not have to be
one sided. In a blog post, Sean McDonald argues that the
humanitarian sector has much to offer the technology industry in terms of data
governance, with the caveat of the latter being willing to learn from the
former’s century of experience in building organizational structures. As technological
developments continue to make its way into humanitarian operations, our main
encouragement to academics and practitioners alike is to make thorough ethical
considerations to help avoid misuse and potential negative implications.
Top 3 highly attended events co-organized by NCHS in 2019 (click on link to access seminar recording)
2019 has without doubt been a successful first year for the NCHS Research
Network on Humanitarian Efforts, we see no reason to rest on our laurels. In
late 2019, The Research Council of Norway awarded several projects related to
humanitarianism with funding starting from 2020, four of which are led by colleagues
associated with NCHS.
This year, we vow to continue engaging with academics, practitioners, policy
makers and the broader public on questions related to humanitarianism. As
stated above, we believe migration, the triple nexus and technological
developments will continue to shape the humanitarian agenda in 2020, but these
are by no means the only topics on which we will focus our efforts. As the year
progress, we hope to engage with actors involved in the field of humanitarian
studies on all topics of interest that may arise, and bridge practical and
analytical knowledge by connecting research conducted on specific crises with
practitioners’ own experience. Stay tuned and follow our web page and
social media channels on Facebook and Twitter for more news.
all the best for 2020.
Coordinator Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian
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:
em busca da proteção integral. Universitas- Relações Internacionais,
6 (2), 2008: 9-38.
Liliana L; Apolinário, Silvia M. O. S; Jarochinski Silva, João Carlos. In: The
transformative potential of refuge: the deepening of solidarity and of limits
to sovereignty as a legacy of the Cartagena Declaration and its review process
In: Jubilut, Liliana Lyra. Refugee Protection in Brazil and Latin America –
Selected Essays, 2018: 159-178).
Liliana L; Carneiro, Wellington P. Resettlement in Solidarity: a regional new
approach towards a more humane durable solution. Refugee Survey
Quarterly, 3, 2011: 63-86.
Liliana L.; Lopes, Rachel de O. Forced Migration and Latin America:
peculiarities of a peculiar region in refugee protection. Archiv des
Völkerrechts, v. 56 (2), 2018: 131 – 154. https://doi.org/10.1628/avr-2018-0008
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,
Humanitarianism and Regional Leadership. In: Garnier, Adèle; Jubilut, Liliana
L.; Sandvik, Kristin B. (Eds.). Refugee Resettlement: Power, Politics
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Flávia; Jubilut, Liliana L. The 1951 Convention and the Americas:
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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.
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
Gunnar M. Sørbø is a social anthropologist, former director of the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), and former Chair of the Board of the NCHS.
This text is based on an op-ed which was first published in Norwegian in Bergens Tidende, 5 May 2019: Europas nye grensevakter.
Are we supporting a development which ultimately sends even more refugees towards Europe?
More than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe during the 2015 refugee crisis, the vast majority arriving either in Greece or Italy. The following year the European Union entered the so-called “EU-Turkey Deal”, a statement of cooperation between European states and the Turkish government. The agreement was meant to ensure that migrants and refugees arriving in Turkey, most of whom were fleeing Syria, would remain there, and that migrants making it to Greece would be returned to Turkey.
From a European
perspective, the agreement with Turkey has been successful. Only about 360.000
migrants and refugees arrived by sea in 2016. The arrivals were distributed
quite evenly between Greece and Italy, the two European countries that received
most of the migrants leaving Northern Africa. To ensure that the flow of people
would be further reduced, the EU as well as several singular European countries
made similar bilateral agreements with Libya, and later with countries in the
Sahel region south of Libya: Sudan, Niger and Chad.
Norway is among the
European countries which has intensified its focus on the region over the past
few years. As with other countries, the motivation behind the increased support
has not been limited to stopping large-scale migration, but also to stop the
spread of Islamic terrorism. This type of terrorism affected Norwegians
directly in 2013 when an attack on the Norwegian energy company Statoil’s gas
facility in Algeria resulted in the loss of Norwegian lives.
In Libya, the EU made an agreement with the government in Tripoli. At the time, the
Libyan authorities had limited territorial control and depended on various
militias for survival. Presently, they are fighting the forces of General
Khalifa Haftar, who is based in the eastern part of Libya and is supported by
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Libya has faced political destabilization
since the former head of state Gaddafi lost power and was killed in 2011.
Thus, Italy suggested
to create checkpoints along the border in southern Libya, an area controlled by
militias often in conflict with each other. The countries south of Libya also
tend to have problems controlling their border regions, yet authoritarian heads
of state have promised to exercise migration control in exchange for much
needed financial support from Europe.
This type of “outsourcing”
means that Europe has become entangled with some unusual border guards that are
difficult to control.
In Sudan, the task of controlling migration has to a large extent been
handed to militias allied with the regime in Khartoum. These are the same armed
groups that were responsible for excessive use of force displacing large groups
of people from their homes during the Darfur crisis of 2003-2004. They patrol
the border to Libya claiming to stop migrants from travelling north, while
simultaneously smuggling people into Libya in cooperation with actors on the
other side of the border.
The same armed forces (Rapid Support Forces – RSF) have also been active at the border between Sudan and Eritrea. Studies conducted through a joint effort by universities in Sudan and the Chr. Michelsen’s Institute/The University of Bergen show that migrants from Eritrea, Syria and other countries continue to journey through Sudan. However, the migrants are paying a higher price than before, taking new routes, and doing so at a greater risk.
While Sudan has
received support from the EU for “managing” migration, the regime’s brutal
policies and the country’s wrecked economy are contributing to a steady flow of
Sudanese people wanting to leave their own country. In 2014-2016, 9,300
Sudanese arrived in Italy, and in 2017, twenty per cent of those granted political
asylum in France came from Sudan.
A report from the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands (“Multilateral Damage”, 2018) confirms some of the
tendencies we have observed in Sudan. Firstly, new migration routes have
emerged, more dangerous and secretive than before, and therefore also more
expensive and criminalized. The total number of migrants making the journey has
decreased, but evidence suggests that the number of migrant deaths has
Secondly, the overall stability in these countries is threatened as the
number of ungovernable militia groups grow. Some of these armed groups profit
from stopping migrants, others from smuggling migrants northwards, and a
considerable number practice both. In Niger, the ban on migration has disturbed
the fragile balance that was established when the Tuareg and Tubu rebels in the
northern part of the country entered a peace accord with the government.
The local economy has deteriorated,
and new militias have emerged in the border regions. A common denominator for
all these countries is that armed groups outside of the state’s control are
becoming more powerful and constituting a security threat.
Political developments in Sudan during April and May 2019 have led the RSFleader Hemetti to power as second-in-command in the Transitional Military Council (TMC), now participating in talks with the protesters about a new government. In Libya, both parties in the war for the capital Tripoli are depending on alliances with militias. Many of them are keeping migrants and refugees in custody and subjecting them to torture and extortion, before a small number – barely 500 in the first three months of this year – gets transported en route to Europe.
In a desperate plea
for help from the EU, the Libyan Prime Minister is threatening that up to 800,000
people will cross the Mediterranean if Libya were to face political collapse.
This is most likely an overstatement, as there are probably not that many
refugees and migrants wishing to reach Europe from Libya right now, and because
transportation by sea is arranged by mafia-like organizations that may be
dissolved if the political chaos in the country is amplified. Nevertheless, the
prime minister’s statement speaks volumes about the vulnerability of the
agreements that have been made.
Most European countries are aware of the risks associated with
“externalizing” border control, but across Europe the field of migration is
characterized by realpolitik. Lowering the number of migrants and asylum
seekers reaching Europe has become the overarching objective.
We are seemingly becoming
less concerned with the policies’ unintended consequences. This is probably
caused by European migration policies claiming to answer all our concerns: not
just migration, but also security, political stability and terrorism – based on
the assumption that human trafficking, drug trafficking, arms dealings and
terrorism are driven by a conglomerate of mafia-like organizations and that
these are hurting local communities in the affected regions.
However, most people
involved in migrant smuggling do not view themselves as criminals, and their
activities may also create positive ripple effects in many local communities across
Before the overthrow of Gaddafi, when many migrants from other African countries went to work in Libya, assisting migrants was part of the formal economy. Now, the practice is considered criminal. This may result in participants formerly engaged with assisting migrants moving their affairs elsewhere, for instance into activities eroding the state’s control such as revolt and terrorism.
Many European politicians probably recognize that the agreements
that are being made strengthen forces we would rather not be associated with,
whether this is an increasingly authoritarian president in Turkey or militia
groups in the Sahel region.
Yet, the question we must ask ourselves is whether this policy is
sustainable in the long run. I am here thinking not only of the immense human
suffering caused by such policies, but also whether we are supporting a
development which will ultimately push even more people in the direction of
Written by Eva Magdalena Stambøl, Doctoral Researcher, Aalborg University
This is the fourth post
in a six-part series on ‘Penal Humanitarianism’, edited by Kjersti Lohne. The
posts center around Mary Bosworth’s concept and Kjersti Lohne’s development of
penal humanitarianism, and how penal power is justified and extended through
the invocation of humanitarian reason. The blog posts were first posted on the
“Border Criminologies” blog, and are re-posted here. Drawing on the case of Niger,
this post explores some of the processes through which the EU projects penal
power beyond Europe and its allegedly humanitarian rationale.
Projecting European Penal Power
Beyond Europe: Humanitarian War on Migrant Smuggling in West Africa
The European Union (EU) and its member states are increasingly pushing countries in the southern (extended) neighbourhood to criminalise unwanted mobility, and bolstering their internal security apparatuses and borders. The objective of this ‘internal security assistance’ is to combat transnational security threats and illicit flows of goods and people allegedly en route to Europe. Based on my doctoral research, which has included fieldwork in Niger, Mali, Senegal and Brussels, this post reflects on the EU’s increasing tendency of crime control ‘at a distance’ in West Africa.
power is the power to render an activity criminal and to enforce criminal law,
which is neatly entwined with a state’s sovereignty. For instance, Vanessa Barker writes how the
reinforcement of national borders within Europe can be seen as a recent
expression of state-craft where penal power is particularly salient. Yet Mary Bosworth argues that
humanitarianism allows penal power to travel beyond the nation state, as can be
observed in cases such as England’s aid to the building of prisons in its
former colonies to which it can transfer and expel prisoners from these
countries. Developing Bosworth’s concept of ‘penal humanitarianism’ further, Kjersti Lohne shows, through
the supranational case of the International Criminal Court (ICC), how the power
to punish is particularly driven by humanitarian reason when punishment is
disembedded from the nation state altogether.
blogpost examines some of the processes through which the EU projects penal
power beyond Europe and its allegedly humanitarian rationale. I draw on the
country case of Niger, which is also an example often used by the EU to
showcase a well-functioning partnership in stopping migration to Europe through
criminalisation and ‘breaking the business model of human smugglers.’ In this
case, penal power is not actually detached from the state. While the EU is both
a supranational and inter-governmental entity, I argue it could also be seen as
something like ‘pooled European penal power’. This European penal power works through a third state by
bolstering this state’s own penal power, without being entirely able to control
how this power is in turn utilised in practice. So what is the relation between
sovereignty and penal power when the EU border is externalised to West Africa?
European penal power in West Africa
Africa, and the Sahel region that cuts across the Sahara Desert, have become a
priority to the EU and its member states in terms of controlling unwanted
mobility. Conceptualising security threats as flows of illicit or dangerous
commodities and people crossing borders and spilling into Europe, the EU is now
seeking ‘partnerships’ with African regimes to build barriers further south.
Substantial efforts are being put into shaping West African penal codes and
reinforcing criminal justice and security apparatuses to deal with illicit
flows. In order to incentivise an actual change, EU aid and budget support, on
which many West African countries depend, is increasingly made conditional upon
the adoption of security strategies, the reform of internal security forces and
the securing of borders.
such example is the EU’s much celebrated ‘partnership’ with President Issoufou
of Niger. In 2015, conspicuously coinciding with the European ‘migration
crisis’, Niger adopted a law criminalising ‘migrant smuggling’. The EU assisted
Niger in drafting the law and provided advice, training and capacity-building
for its enforcement. This was done, among other, through the Common Security
and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission EUCAP Sahel Niger, and through projects
financed by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. EU aid to Niger continued
to grow, and in December 2017 the European Commission announced 1 billion
euro in support by 2020, as Niger had demonstrated ‘strong political
willingness and leadership’ to confront challenges. Indeed, in 2016 Nigerien
authorities started rigorously enforcing the law, selectively in the northern
town of Agadez which had figured in the international press as the hub for
migrants travelling to Libya and Algeria. Since then more than 130 ‘migrant
smugglers’ have been arrested and their vehicles seized, and the number of
migrants crossing into Libya registered by the International Organisation for
Migration (IOM) is reported to have dropped. The Niger migrant smuggling law
and its enforcement is seen as so successful that the EU wants to replicate it
in other Sahel countries as well.
Penal humanitarianism at Europe’s extraterritorial border
rationale behind the EU’s fight against ‘migrant smugglers’ in Niger is framed
as a humanitarian obligation: stopping migrants from travelling through Niger
equals saving them from dying in the hands of evil people smugglers or in
Libyan detention camps. This is not very different from Libya further north,
where the EU’s training of the ‘coast guard’ is justified by saving people from
drowning in the Mediterranean. Nor is it very different from the EU’s external
borders where, according to Katja Franko and Helene Gundhus, the
discourse of protecting the human rights of migrants permeate the borderwork of
society organisations (CSOs) in Niger and the local population in Agadez are
strongly opposed to the criminal category of ‘migrant smuggling’ as it relates
to Nigerien reality. Guiding people through the desert has been a noble, traditional
role for centuries, and now-called migrant smugglers are not ‘organised crime
syndicates’ as the European Commission assumes (also see Sanchez, 2015).
Moreover, CSOs claim the new law is de facto suspending the Economic Community
of West African States (ECOWAS) Protocol on free movement for ECOWAS citizens,
which most of the migrants are. Intra-African migration is a crucial livelihood
strategy in a region fraught with periodical extreme drought and climate
change. Research also documented severe
de-stabilising effects of the law enforcement as the economy of the region of
Agadez collapsed, leading the local population to lose their livelihoods, fuelling
economic frustrations and anger, and increasing armed banditry and general
The case of EU policies in Niger corroborates the argument that penal power can take on a humanitarian rationale when it travels. This seems to be particularly the case when criminal justice, migration control, international development and foreign policy intersect. Complicating the relationship between sovereignty and penal power, Niger’s sovereignty is both hollowed out by mediating European ‘pooled’ penal power and at the same time boosted by the co-option of aid into President Issoufou’s personal goals. What is certain is that the security of Europe does not equal the human security of migrants or local Nigerien communities, nor does the latter equal the security of the Nigerien regime.
Written by Katja Franko, University of Oslo, & Helene O.I. Gundhus, University of Oslo.
This is the third post in a six-part series on ‘Penal Humanitarianism’, edited by Kjersti Lohne. The posts center around Mary Bosworth’s concept and Kjersti Lohne’s development of penal humanitarianism, and how penal power is justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason. The blog posts were first posted on the “Border Criminologies” blog, and are re-posted here. This post delves into how individuals tasked with carrying out state policies on border control react to direct encounters with human suffering, and the implications such interpersonal encounters may have on border studies as a whole.
Moral Discomfort at the Border: Understanding
Penal Humanitarianism in Practice
growing body of recent scholarship has pointed out the intricate connections
between the exercise of penal power and humanitarianism in general, as well
humanitarianism at the border (see e.g. Fassin; Bosworth; Lohne). This research has shown the centrality
of humanitarian ideals and language within different penal sites and programs
such as prison building programs abroad, the International Criminal Court and
various border control practices. Humanitarian ideals are exposed as central to
governmental discourses, disembedding penal power from the nation state, and
often used to legitimize highly controversial border practices as matters of
saving and protecting lives or promoting human rights.
Mary Bosworth, for example, observes that ‘human rights rhetoric and practices can justify the exercise of coercive state powers, even if their supporters wish it were otherwise’. In these contexts, humanitarianism is understood to function as a smokescreen and a technique for glossing over the ethically problematic and messy realities of border control. As Didier Fassin suggests: ‘Humanitarianism has this remarkable capacity: it fugaciously and illusorily bridges the contradictions of our world, and makes the intolerableness of its injustices somewhat bearable. Hence, its consensual force.’ In this post, we wish to contribute to the debate by drawing attention to the somewhat neglected aspects of humanitarianism in practice.
In our own work, we have analysed the deployment
of humanitarian language and the discourse of human rights in Frontex
operations. The precarious situation at Europe’s external borders is creating
an irresolvable tension between the interests of European states to seal off
their borders and the respect for fundamental human rights. The paradox of the
centrality of ‘saving lives at sea’ in EU policy documents illuminates the
disconnection between the performative aspects of humanitarianism and its operational
use. The study revealed obvious contradictions and disjunctions between the
objectives of state security and a lack of concern for migrants’ vulnerability,
transferred into member states’ national risk assessments indicators.
we also uncovered the centrality of humanitarian sentiments in the narratives
of police officers tasked with performing everyday border control. Indeed, the
interviews with Frontex officers revealed a rather complex picture. While the
humanitarian discourse clearly does a certain kind of performative ‘work’, it
also seems to be to some extent internalized and appropriated by actors on the
ground. Many officers talked with deeply felt seriousness and compassion about
providing clothing and medicine for cold, wet and sick migrants. Some
experienced the situation to be so serious that they drew analogies to the WW2.
As one experienced officer described the situation in Greek detention centres:
‘It was like watching, it is terrible to say that, but it was like watching a
war movie from 1943. Simply like that. Coming close to concentration camps.’
The controversial concentration camp analogy is, therefore, not only used by
impassioned outside critics, but also by people within the system.
these stories of compassion and concern can be understood as a form of
narrative self-legitimation work in a system which suffers from acute deficits
in legitimacy (Bosworth; Ugelvik ), we would like to suggest that they
also do a more complex work which may merit further analytical attention. In
our study, compassion was often expressed as a result of having a more direct
and closer contact with human suffering, which led the officers not only to
sympathize with migrants, but also to see them in a more positive way and as
more trustworthy. One officer described:
You get a slightly
different understanding, because you get so much closer to the person, the
credibility of the person standing before you is much stronger. I have registered
asylum seekers [in Norway] until I’m exhausted (…) All of them are saying the
same. (…) While here, you do have real people standing in front of you, telling
a trustworthy story (Police Officer, de-briefer, PU6).
compassion may still have performative and self-legitimating aspects (not least
in relation to the interviewers), yet it is also an emotion which arises due to
the physical closeness to suffering, resembling ‘the living presence’ of the
Other described by Emmanuel Levinas. This presence is experienced
and is different from, and not reducible to, words and ideas. As one officer
said: ‘you see the hopelessness in it. I have in a sense understood it for
several years, but now I can see the reality of what they are talking about’
would like to suggest that such sentiments of understanding, compassion and a
wish to help, which arise from direct, on the ground human encounters (although
related) should be distinguished from the performative aspects of
humanitarianism visible particularly in political discourse and policy
documents. They demand a more nuanced understanding of the meaning of
humanitarianism within border studies and an acknowledgement of the ambivalent feelings and moral discomfort
inherent in doing border work. This discomfort is dealt quite differently
by individuals performing border control and is felt more acutely by some than
others. Nevertheless, amplified by intense public critique, moral discomfort
seems to be an inherent part of doing border control and can in some cases lead
to outright resistance.
example, our interviews with police officers performing border control in
Norway demonstrated clear disagreement in how the police should use their newly
acquired right to conduct border checks. Random territorial control of foreign
citizens in the city center and targeted controls of families in detention
centers were criticised for being immoral and inhumane. There was also a
resentment of using deportation numbers as official performance targets for
police work. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions, which are
frequently talked about in relation to migrants, were thus also created within
the police force. As one officer from Oslo Police District described:
Well, it can be said that
internally, within the police, there are different understandings of how to
apply immigration law. It is just as well if this came out. Some look at this
from an ethical perspective – that is us – while others are more concerned with
performance targets and such. And the ethical side thinks that performance
targets are a wrong way of doing the work, and admits that this is a sensitive
field to work in, while it seems to me that the others, the other side, have
not reflected on this well enough. I know that within the Police Immigration
Unit there are disagreements as well.
Border studies have, so far, paid relatively scarce attention to such internal resistance and the moral and ethical discomfort of performing border control (see Bosworth for valuable exception). By seeing humanitarian rationalities primarily as a way of cementing and legitimizing the status quo, we may be operating with a rather one-dimensional understanding of humanitarianism and failing to differentiate between different aspects and actors. While one of the main strengths of studies of humanitarianism has been to connect broad policy issues to questions of morality and emotion, this slippage may be also one of its main drawbacks due to the obscuring of on the ground inter-personal dynamics. Moreover, the field may be slow in recognizing resistance, and potential for it, coming from within the system. Consequently, a question can be asked whether border studies may be poorly equipped to fully understand the dialectics of change arising from the moral discomfort of doing border work, as well as liable to reproduce its own ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions.
Map of the British Empire from the India & Colonial Exhibition in London, 1886. PHOTO: The British Library
When we discuss decolonising the academy, we are talking about power, and more specifically power hierarchies. So, we are discussing unevenly distributed power when it comes to defining knowledge, which inevitably leads to skewed knowledge, to incomplete knowledge.
Empires in the plural
We know of the British empire, and the colonial enterprises of the French, Spanish or Portuguese, and later on the Americans. In the context of Norway, we also recognise the more complex imperial histories involving both the Norwegian state’s approach to the indigenous Sami populations, and Norway’s union first with Denmark, then Sweden, leaving Norway an independent state only from 1905. Yet, there is still reason to expand on this plurality of empires – historically and geographically.
However, my point with drawing attention to Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is to underscore the need for scrutiny of the roles of empires in the plural – where Conrad serves as a useful example. He was born in Poland, at a time when the country did not exist on the European map, but rather had been divided into three and absorbed among other by Russia. He was born into a family where both his mother and father were active in the Polish underground as anti-tsarists activists. His parents died early and he left Poland at 16.
How is this relevant for a discussion on decolonising the academy taking place in Norway? First, in recognizing the many different empires and colonisations which exist historically and geographically. Notably in relation to Norway’s neighbour, Russia and its region. Second, to critically assess the role of language in knowledge production and communication, also in relation to colonisation. For, how much do we know, today in Norway, of knowledge production and academic exchange, in Russia, or in the larger region which was under heavy influence of the Soviet Union until less than 30 years ago? And if we are not well-versed here – why not? And by extension; which imperialisms come to matter in efforts to decolonise the academy, and which perhaps do not?
Which international migration flows are studied, and why these?
Whilst the interest in the academic study of international migration is growing, the interest in international migration in Russia and its neigbouring countries is disproportionately small, that is, in the English-language migration studies literature. This is despite the fact that international and regional migration in Russia and its neighbouring countries, by any measure, is a huge contemporary phenomenon. Why? And does this not intersect with issues of defining which knowledge is of interest and relevance?
In migration studies more broadly, questions of power of definition and of colonial legacies, frequently come to the fore. Not least in relation to race. But also in the ways in which colonial legacies matter for migration management policies around the world. Despite the fact that global interconnections and interdependencies are obvious in migration studies, there are unresolved issues and dilemmas insufficiently reflected upon. For instance, in relation to who is an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ and how researcher positionality impacts findings. It continues to be a challenge that rigid boundaries between “the majority” and “minorities” are taken at face value, obscuring the multiple ways in which power-hierarchies matter in processes of knowledge production and knowledge communication. These are fundamental questions, where matters of power are at the core.
For justice, for knowledge
Finally, from the perspective of research being conducted at an institute such as the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), what might the practical implications of reflecting on decolonising the academy be? As a start, recognising that there can be no peace without justice, and that this, arguably, ought to also involve equitable processes of knowledge production. Here, the obvious backdrop is the extreme imbalance in wealth, whereby academics based in Norway, for all the challenges which exist here, with temporary contracts, among other, are super-privileged in the global context. How then to adopt academic everyday practices which can in anyway contribute to processes of knowledge production that are more equal?
One place to look, is to the ways in which we engage in research collaboration with international partners. Who do we work with and how? Whatever the structural constraints which are there – in the short term – are there things which can be done in order to make such research collaboration practices more equal? And within this – how do we productively engage with conceptions of the world which are – or appear to be – fundamentally different to our own? A first basic step is to recognise that we need to ask ourselves these questions, and to invest time and energy in doing so.
By engaging actively in academic everyday practices that are built on principles of co-production of knowledge – however that translates in different fields – we not only do our small bit to contribute to more equal knowledge production, hence to justice. We also contribute to knowledge production, which through being more equal, can contribute to a global body of knowledge that is more complete.
This blog post was orginally posted on the PRIO blog.
How do people find protection in a world that increasingly attempts to govern their movements – in particular those that cross international borders? This larger question inspired me to compare measures and understandings of protection for Somali refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). While I had not conducted research on the situation of Somali IDPs before, I have published extensively on the situation of Somalis in regional refugee camps – for example in the monograph Transnational Nomads and latest blog Finding protection from violent conflict and famine?
The current interest of a number of states in commencing the return of refugees to Somalia, as well as to relocate and return IDPs in urban areas in Mogadishu and Hargeisa, directly affects the protection of the individuals involved. The, arguably premature, focus on stabilization seems to be guided by a wish to claim success of international reconciliation efforts and a justification for returning large numbers of refugees and asylumseekers from places like Kenya and Sweden. Yet such pressure to return greatly runs the risk of destabilizing processes in Somalia while offering no guarantee that those being returned will find any kind of protection. Though it is unlikely that a country like Kenya is going to follow through statements that it will ‘relocate’ half a million refugees from Dadaab to IDP camps in ‘liberated’ areas, there is a much greater risk that funding for assistance in Dadaab will increasingly dry up, encouraging a ‘voluntary’ return from the camps. A number of these issues are also analyzed in a recent report entitled Hasty Repatriation.
As my recent fieldwork in Nairobi brought to light, attempts to govern mobility do not just take place through border control and immigration measures, but also through humanitarian policies and practices. The importance of such policies and practices is particularly visible in Somalia’s current ‘transitional phase’, characterized by an increased focus on return and a shift from an emergency approach to stabilization programming. This shift is accompanied by talks of relocating funding from Kenya, Somaliland and Puntland to South/Central Somalia, where insecurity is still rampant and the newly established government faces considerable challenges. PRIO’s collaborative partner, the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), is conducting data collection in Mogadishu and Hargeisa to explore the implications in Somalia.
As humanitarian policies and practices affect protection and displacement, before flight as much as after, it is crucial to underscore that mobility remains one of the most efficient ways in which those affected by violent conflict can protect themselves. Consider Mohamed Shukri’s story. When I spoke with him in Nairobi, early 2009, he told me he was pressured by his family and friends to leave Mogadishu for many months, but stayed on until July 2008 when two of his close friends and colleagues were assassinated. He realized it was no longer safe for him either. Just like his friends, he had been very outspoken on human rights abuses by all parties involved in the conflict, and was likely to be targeted. He was able to leave Somalia and lived in Nairobi for a while – until he deemed it safe for him to return to Mogadishu.
Not only individuals like Mohamed, who because of their activities or individual characteristics are persecuted in their own country, protect themselves through fleeing. Civilians who get caught up in violent conflict and suffer its effects do the same. As Mohamed’s story shows, this is not necessarily a decision easily taken. Fleeing involves new security risks, while it forces people to leave behind what is dear to them. It also entails moving towards an uncertain future in exile without many of the resources to cope with that uncertainty. While in exile, return decisions are constantly considered and weighed against the security situation for the individual or family concerned, and other relevant factors.
Mohamed’s story highlights none of the practical difficulties of leaving a conflict zone, as he had the necessary contacts and money – now occupying a senior position in Somalia’s newly established government. Yet many who decide to move from an area or country in conflict face considerable obstacles, leading researchers to conclude that refugees are often stuck in situations of ‘involuntary immobility’. Warring factions restrict people’s mobility for strategic reasons, as al-Shabab has been doing in the areas it controlled. Governments in the region and beyond attempt to govern migration, concerned with large-scale movements from conflict areas and fearing various spill-over effects. As such, the question of how people find protection in a world where states play a role in governing mobility – through border control and immigration measures as well as through their humanitarian policies and practices – remains highly relevant. And the current situation in Somalia clearly highlights, this question needs to be addressed not just before and during flight, but also during displacement and upon return.