Introduction: From Political Right to Humanitarian Charity

Discussing refugees from Nazi Germany, Hannah Arendt ([1943] 1994, 110) says, “Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.” Today, there may not be concentration camps, but thousands of refugees end up in detention centers, and hundreds of thousands are fenced into camps every year. Refugee camps and detention centers are an integral part of the so-called humanitarian response to the “refugee crisis.” Often operating in extraterritorial and extra- or quasi-legal border spaces, refugee camps have become the answer to mass forced migration due to civil war, gang violence, famine, and drought. Far from the United Nations’s (UN) post–World War II vision that persecuted peoples fleeing violence at home have a right to asylum and nonrefoulement, refugee camps and detention centers operate as check-points and management centers designed to ensure that refugees do not enter the host country rather than to ensure that they receive asylum, or even the basic human rights guaranteed by UN charters: clean water, food, and shelter, let alone security, freedom of movement, and dignity. In the words of sociologist Didier Fassin (2016), “whereas many European states once regarded asylum as a right, they now increasingly treat it as a favor. In parallel, the image of refugees had to be transformed, from victims of persecution entitled to international protection to undesirable persons suspected of taking advantage of a liberal system.” What were considered political rights following the Second World War have been downgraded to humanitarian favors in the contemporary “refugee crisis.”

Part of the problem is that even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR 1995a) defines the work of international law as humanitarian and not political: “beginning with the Statute of the Office, UNHCR’s mandate has been described as a humanitarian one, meaning that actions in favour of refugees should be non-partisan and non-political with the sole concern being the safety and welfare of the refugees. This understanding of refugee protection as humanitarian work allows countries of asylum to respond to the needs of refugees without passing judgment on the country of origin, which is often a neighbouring state, while the acceptance of UNHCR as a humanitarian agency helps to ensure support for our work”; furthermore, the UNHCR incorporates human rights into humanitarian standards rather than political rights: “placing greater reliance on human rights standards as a basis for UNHCR’s work does not jeopardize the humanitarian character of our activities, since international human rights law is itself non-political and non-partisan.”[1] Here I attempt to show that humanitarian aid and human rights discourse are always political and partisan. Moreover, in terms of treatment of refugees today, humanitarian aid and human rights discourse have been coopted by military operations. Thus any claim to neutrality becomes suspect. Furthermore, tracing the history of humanitarianism demonstrates not only that it has never been neutral but also that it has its roots in war and violence. This is not to say that we should dispense with humanitarian aid and human rights; rather, we should critically consider how the uneasy alliance between humanitarian aid, human rights, and military operations produces refugees as either security risks or charity cases, that is to say, as criminals who deserve to be interrogated and incarcerated or as moochers who don’t deserve anything but pity and a free handout.

Humanitarian aid organizations have become big business, often operating in tandem with state governments and the military. The process of applying for refugee status is difficult and fraught with problems, and most refugees end up living in squalid camps for decades before they are granted asylum, sent back home, or displaced into another temporary living situation. In terms of the multitude of international treaties and conventions governing humanitarian aid, human rights, and refugee treatment, refugee camps are not sanctioned by the UN. Indeed, many have come under attack for violations of basic human rights as outlined by UN charters (including refugees’ rights to clean water, food, shelter, freedom of movement, security, dignity, and nonrefoulement or protection against return to the violence of their home countries). Although every refugee camp is different, most are overseen by a combination of government agencies, military personnel and police, and international humanitarian aid organizations, all ostensibly keeping borders of the host country secure from the so-called threats posed by refugees and providing refugees with the basic necessities to stay alive.

For those incarcerated or interned, detention centers and refugee camps are often places of abuse and always places of further trauma (Human Rights First 2009a; see also Granski, Keller, and Venters 2015). The irony is that people who have the courage to stand up to totalitarian governments, or fight for freedom, and flee persecution find themselves locked up or fenced in again in the name of the freedom and security of their hosts. Asylum seekers fleeing violence in their own countries meet another kind of violence in camps, and the freedom and security of refugees are sacrificed in the name of the freedom and security of “proper” citizens. Even in countries proud of their democratic values, the value of an open society quickly closes itself off in the face of mass migration, as refugees and asylum seekers are managed, controlled, interrogated, detained, incarcerated, and interned in detention centers or refugee camps.

Carceral humanitarianism is today’s response to the UN Refugee Convention originally designed to protect refugees from Nazi Germany. Carceral humanitarianism has replaced government resettlement policies created to address the situation of Jews and other displaced persons after World War II. With the newly formed UN Convention behind them, nation-states relatively quickly resettled people displaced during World War II. This is not the case today. Instead, today’s refugees may spend a significant portion of their lives in refugee camps. Some of them grow up in refugee camps. Some of them die in refugee camps. While many of Arendt’s insights into the status of stateless people still apply, refugees today are not so much stateless as border figures, who, rather than having their citizenship revoked by their home countries, are excluded by the host countries they seek to enter.[2] Not necessarily the targets of violence or persecution per se, many find themselves in the cross fire of civil war and must escape to save themselves and their families. Although the UN Refugee Convention and its amendments were designed to give the victims of political persecution the right to asylum, and legal remedies to procure protection, the status of today’s refugees as victims of political persecution, and therefore as protected, is often ambiguous at best.

Furthermore, caught in the cross fire, many of today’s refugees arriving in Europe are considered “collateral damage” in the so-called war on terror. The war on terror is fought without declarations of war or front lines. This is not a war between nation-states but rather comprises targeted attacks on pockets of power or subsets of populations (terrorists or dictators) in the name of security and democracy. The majority of people in these war zones are not terrorists, or even our enemies, yet they find themselves under attack, displaced, or fleeing for their lives. Caught in the cross fire of bloody civil wars fueled by covert post–Cold War politics, refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria seek asylum in Europe, only to meet a chilly welcome at best and hostility and more violence at worst. The U.S. military and its allies use surgical strikes, drone warfare, and targeted assassinations to mitigate and control “collateral damage” in an age of “humanitarian warfare” where, in addition to delivering bombs and weapons, the military brings food and medical supplies and humanitarian aid organizations travel under military protection. More than ever, humanitarian aid and humanitarian warfare operate in tandem in an uneasy, but necessary, alliance between saving lives and killing—or letting die.

Massive refugee camps and detention centers attended by military forces, police, and humanitarian aid organizations are part of a system of population management. This carceral humanitarianism is the result of contemporary warfare as a way to control and manage populations and their movements. Carceral humanitarianism has become the norm in areas of conflict where refugees are suspected of being or becoming terrorists.[3] Rather than welcoming refugees, their hosts assess the relative risks of taking them in versus turning them away. Individual refugees are assessed in terms of a risk–benefit analysis based on the threat or advantage they might bring to the host. The combination of sheer numbers and fear of terrorism leads to extended periods of detention for refugees, some of whom spend their entire childhoods in camps. Refugee camps the size of cities with only one or two water faucets, and lacking basic facilities such as bathrooms and medical care, have become squalid pits of despair for millions of people.

Contemporary detention centers and refugee camps are part and parcel of a system of carceral humanitarianism and “rescue politics” that turns refugees into criminals and charity cases simultaneously, which, in turn, becomes the troubling justification for “rescuing” them in order to lock them up or lock them in, increasingly in dangerous, disease-ridden, sorely inadequate conditions.[4] Refugees and asylum seekers become targets of a new humanitarian military. For example, in the case of Syrian refugees, navies and coast guards operating in the Mediterranean Sea patrol for boatloads of people risking their lives to flee violence at home. Their rescue at sea becomes a way of containing their unauthorized movement. Once rescued, migrants are sorted, contained within fences and checkpoints, and monitored. Their freedom of movement is severely limited, and they are often forced to live in deplorable conditions. As Martina Tazzioli (2015, 3) argues, migrants escaping wars and famine become “shipwrecked people” to be rescued in a problematic “rescue politics” that is as much about statistics as it is quality of life: “the government of migration is grounded on a politics of numbers that sorts people into ‘risk’ categories,” where very few are eventually granted permanent asylum and allowed to legally enter the host country. With contemporary rescue politics, the military approach that treats refugees like prisoners of war, terrorist threats, or criminals is fused with the humanitarian approach that treats refugees as charity cases to be rescued and saved. Military and humanitarian organizations operate in tandem, and often in coordinated efforts, both to save and to contain refugees.

Carceral humanitarianism is the outgrowth of humanitarian warfare in which war and aid are two sides of state sovereignty. International humanitarian aid and humanitarian warfare are bound together through a contradictory logic that simultaneously challenges and shores up state sovereignty. The fight for humanitarian space free from politics and national interests only highlights the intimate connections between humanitarian aid and national interests, which cannot be separated. Rather, nation-states rely on international humanitarian aid organizations to take care of mass forced migration and refugees, while their militaries police borders to capture, detain, and control the movement of those same people. In the name of human rights, and humanitarian concerns, state governments deploy military personnel to border regions (and so-called hotbeds of terrorism) to deliver both humanitarian aid and humanitarian warfare. Indeed, today’s Western militaries, in the business of fighting terrorism, use humanitarian aid as much as they use smart bombs and drone strikes, both justified through increasingly complicated cost–benefit analyses and assessments of collateral damage.

In Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention, I deconstruct the opposition between humanitarian space and national sovereignty, and between humanitarian aid and humanitarian war, to diagnose a new form of humanitarianism, namely, carceral humanitarianism. Carceral humanitarianism has replaced any properly political solution to the “refugee crisis” by turning it into a matter of humanitarian aid or charity, on one hand, and of national security, on the other, thereby justifying military interventions. The protection of basic human rights of refugees supposedly ensured by international law is handed off to international humanitarian organizations or bartered among nation-states as bargaining chips in international trade agreements. In myriad increasingly complex ways, humanitarian aid operates in tandem with new forms of “humanitarian” warfare. The military and humanitarian aid organizations work together to deliver, manage, and police refugees’ food, water, shelter, and medical care. We could even say that humanitarian aid is the flip side of humanitarian war.

Within the logic of humanitarian warfare, refugees become not only collateral damage but also fungible units to be exchanged between nations, where rich governments pay poorer ones to take in refugees so they won’t have to. Furthermore, borders, border checkpoints, and border spaces have expanded to include international military and police forces, in order to catch, manage, interrogate, and contain refugees and asylum seekers before they even reach the shores of their host countries. Whereas borders are freely crossed by certain people, goods, and commerce, suggesting an open global economy, they remain closed to others, suggesting that borders are not just about territories and nation-states but also and moreover about policing certain groups of people. In the words of Julia Schulze Wessel (2015, 52), “whereas nation-state borders enclosed a specific territory and were institutions designed to regulate cross-border movements and transactions, today’s borders enclose certain persons.”

In an attempt to protect national security from those undesirables deemed threats, both humanitarian aid and humanitarian war operate according to the logic of collateral damage, wherein risks and benefits are calculated using computer algorithms designed to protect the host country while sacrificing the lowest number of civilian lives on both sides of the conflict. In this lesser-of-evils scenario, some will be sacrificed for the benefit of others. Yet, calculating collateral damage and the lesser of evils reduces human life—and all life—to exchange units whose value is calculated in terms of risks or benefits to the powers that be, namely, the United States, the European Union, and their allied military forces and governments. The relative value of human life, and all life, is calculated in terms that benefit certain people and make the lives of others disposable. At the extreme, and in its principles, the logic of collateral damage is a genocidal logic used to justify condemning some groups of people (or animals) and saving others. In the case of refugees, some groups of people are destined for camps and detention centers without basic resources, while a chosen few deemed beneficial to the host country and its economic well-being may be given proper paperwork to enter and work.

In Carceral Humanitarianism, I analyze the relationships between state sovereignty, humanitarian aid, humanitarian war, and rescue politics and conclude that although humanitarian aid may be necessary, and perhaps even desirable, it is not a properly political solution to a political problem.[5] Furthermore, I argue that even if we cannot, and should not, dismiss the importance of humanitarian aid, and the good work done by humanitarian aid organizations, we must critically analyze the current phase of humanitarian violence in relation to the history of humanitarianism, on one hand, and current military practices and discourses, on the other. Approaching contemporary humanitarian aid from various angles and different directions, I call into question the central role of international humanitarian aid organizations in addressing the refugee crisis, particularly insofar as those organizations are increasingly indebted to military operations and national agendas. The refugee crisis is not first a humanitarian crisis; rather, it is a political crisis caused by geopolitics on a global scale. And, unfortunately, today’s carceral humanitarianism transforms mass forced migration into primarily a matter of national security, even as it incorporates discourses of human rights and rescue.

Human rights discourse and military rescue operations are not in themselves the problems. If that’s all we’ve got, we need to use them. But the seemingly necessary alliance between war and aid, killing and protecting, interrogating and feeding, wounding and healing, and so on, inherent in the war on terror prevents any effective solution to the refugee crisis. Refugees have become pawns in the war on terror, sometimes seen as victims of terrorist organizations like ISIS and sometimes as terrorists themselves. Military strategy includes killing members of terrorist cells while providing food and aid to civilians at risk of radicalization to prevent the spread of terrorist ideology. Of course, the geopolitics of terrorism is complex, especially insofar as the United States has provided weapons and training for local insurgent groups that end up turning against the United States. And conflicts in the Middle East continue to play out Cold War politics with the United States and its allies, supporting one side, and Russia and its allies, supporting the other. Whatever the causes of the mass forced migration—Cold War politics, terrorist organizations, climate change and drought—the result is that millions of people are fleeing for their lives. And to spite current international policies supposedly ensuring the right to asylum, many refugees and migrants find themselves in precarious situations, risking death at sea or on dangerous journeys, only to arrive in squalid, makeshift camps on borderlands.

I begin this book by describing the scope of the problem: more than 60 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, more than 20 million of them are refugees seeking asylum, and another 10 million are defined as “stateless people” (UNHCR 2015a); furthermore, more than 20 million people live in camps and detention centers around the world (UNHCR 2015a; see also McKenzie and Swails 2015). The war on terror, civil war, gang violence, famine, and poverty caused by global warming are some of the reasons people are displaced both internally and outside their home countries. Yet protecting the sovereignty of some states and their national borders, and of certain people over others, has led to representations of refugees as either criminals or freeloaders, images used to justify detention, interrogation, population management, and control. Without state sovereignty and territorial borders, there wouldn’t be refugee camps or detention centers. Or put differently, if we embraced radical democratic values, and had open borders, the very distinction between citizen and refugee would disappear as people moved freely across borders. Fears about security (social, economic, religious, physical, cultural, etc.) produce the need for borders. These fears also produce perceptions of refugees as criminal, threatening, and abject. At best, refugees are seen as victims in need of rescue; at worst, they are seen as terrorist threats. In Carceral Humanitarianism, I deconstruct this opposition between rescue and security to show how humanitarian aid as rescue politics operates as the flip side of humanitarian war as security politics. I begin by showing how carceral humanitarianism and rescue politics do not satisfy the protection of refugee rights set out by the UN Refugee Convention. The squalid conditions in camps and lack of health care and freedom of movement in detention centers go against the UNHCR policy on basic human rights afforded to asylum seekers, whatever their status. If we take human rights as the standard, current policies toward refugees and asylum seekers fall woefully short.

Next, I argue that the UN requirements for refugee status put asylum seekers in an impossible subject position as both active agents fighting for their lives, on one hand, and helpless victims in need of rescue, on the other. In addition, practical considerations of translation and trauma make testimony to persecution problematic at best. The material difficulties to testifying to trauma in a system and language that are unfamiliar undermine the possibility of compelling testimony. To be granted refugee status, the UNHCR guidelines require that refugees fear for their lives, flee persecution, and escape violence in their home countries before they can even apply for refugee status. Refugees by definition, then, are traumatized by violence at home and during their escape, often making a perilous journey to a host country on whose shores they may arrive illegally. Though the UNHCR acknowledges a host of problems with interviewing refugees, these interviews too often become interrogations that put asylum seekers into the situation of reliving their trauma and the impossible situation of testifying both to their agency and to their lack of it in relation to their persecution. Continuing the line of reasoning from the first section, this section takes up some of the practical and theoretical problems of UN policies toward refugees in determining the right to asylum and protecting basic human rights.

The refugee crisis has been called a “humanitarian crisis” and a “crisis of human rights.” In “Human Rights Discourse as Alibi for Humanitarian War,” I briefly survey some of the philosophical and historical problems with the human rights discourse in relation to refugees. Starting with Hannah Arendt’s critique of human rights as not only tied to citizen rights but also too abstract to protect stateless people, and continuing with Jacques Derrida’s criticism of both categories of “human” and “rights,” I argue that although human rights discourse may be useful, even necessary, in demanding basic resources for refugees, we cannot ignore the troubled history of human rights and how they continue to operate according to a logic of exclusion that necessarily leaves some abandoned and disposable. More importantly, I show how the human rights discourse is being used in the service of military operations and as an alibi for the collateral damage and lesser-of-evils utilitarian approach to the refugee crisis, which makes some lives more valuable than others and justifies treating some people as fungible commodities at best and as disposable “collateral damage” at worst.

Today, rather than addressing human rights per se, the approach to the refugee crisis by the United States and its allies, along with the European Union, is one of containing collateral damage and taking the lesser of evils. I continue my critique of the logic of calculability upon which policies of risk–benefit analysis are based, arguing that the utilitarian calculus used by both humanitarian aid organizations and humanitarian military operations reduces human life (and all life) to statistical calculations of risk or benefit to the organization or government doing the calculations. Even Doctors without Borders now uses complex risk–benefit computer modeling to set policies about where to send medical aid. This calculating machine at the heart of humanitarianism is dangerous, a so-called necessary evil. Yet, as Hannah Arendt ([1964] 2003, 36) reminds us, “those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.”

Both humanitarian aid and humanitarian warfare operate according to logics of calculation. And in carceral humanitarianism, they usually operate together (if sometimes in an uneasy alliance) to deliver food, water, and medical supplies to regions of conflict and to protect aid workers while doing so. As part of the war on terror, and to reduce the risk of radicalization of people in war-torn areas associated with terrorists, the military itself delivers humanitarian aid. In “Humanitarian Warfare and Humanitarian Aid: Two Sides of the Same Sovereign,” I argue not only that humanitarian warfare and humanitarian aid operate in tandem but also that nation-states create refugees and then pay humanitarian aid organizations to take care of them. National sovereignty is dependent on so-called neutral humanitarian space, which occupies an ambiguous space on the outskirts and borders of host countries. This neutral humanitarian space, often guarded by state police and military, is far from independent of state sovereignty. To the contrary, humanitarian space is coopted to maintain national sovereignty against the threat of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. In other words, within carceral humanitarianism, refugees operate as both a threat to national sovereignty and the justification for shoring up borders.

In the remainder of Carceral Humanitarianism, I continue to deconstruct the notion of humanitarian space by demonstrating that humanitarian aid organizations are not only dependent on state governments but also, and moreover, part and parcel of the logic of state sovereignty. Following Derrida, I trace the Christian roots of that sovereignty back to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, which is closely associated with the history of humanitarian organizations, most especially the very first international humanitarian organization, the Red Cross. Relying on historian Michael Barnett’s history of humanitarian aid organizations, I challenge the notion of neutral humanitarian space, not only because aid organizations have always been closely connected to the military and government support, but also because they have always delivered ideology along with bandages. From the civilizing mission of Christianity to the mission of globalization, humanitarian aid organizations are not immune from politics. Yet, as long as governments rely on humanitarian aid organizations to manage refugee populations, they have an alibi for not providing what Arendt, and contemporary philosophers such as David Owen, demand, namely, a political solution (rather than a humanitarian solution) to a political problem.[6] As my analysis attempts to show, however, humanitarian aid cannot be separated from politics. It has always been political. On one hand, there is no neutral humanitarian space, and the calls for such neutrality point to its impossibility. On the other hand, using humanitarian aid as an alibi allows nation-states to postpone a “properly political” solution to mass forced migration.

If contemporary logics of proportionality employed by both humanitarian aid organizations and humanitarian military operations are designed to mitigate and control violence and death to avoid the worst violence and death, according to calculations of the lesser of evils, then we must ask, what is the most evil, or the worst evil? Usually, we think of genocide as the worst evil, and the “worst” is often shorthand for the “final solution” and the Holocaust. Since the end of World War II, and the Cold War, the “worst” has become associated with the possibility of nuclear war, even the destruction of the entire planet. Following Derrida, I rethink that worst as a result of the logic of calculation taken to the extreme at the expense of all other worldviews. When lives become fungible and exchangeable, we risk the “worst.” In this regard, insofar as contemporary humanitarian warfare operates according to the logic of utilitarian calculations of collateral damage that make some lives disposable, it risks the “worst.”

In “A New Form of Genocide,” I argue that the conditions in most refugee camps and detention centers and the political construction of the group identity “refugee,” combined with policies of collateral damage and lesser-of-evils scenarios, meet the definition of genocide set out by the UN. Most particularly, policies that treat refugees as collateral damage or units of exchange, where some lives are more valuable than others as calculated through risk–benefit analysis, renders the lives of refugees fungible and therefore ultimately disposable. The fact that the United States and the European Union pay other countries to keep refugees from crossing their borders makes clear that the lives of these people can be bought and sold like so much cargo to be held in port or lost at sea. The UN definition of genocide goes beyond mass murder to include any group whose members are denied basic human rights on the basis of their membership in that group. I argue that refugees constitute such a group. Whether they are treated as charity cases or security threats, insofar as the basic needs of refugees are managed by humanitarian aid organizations rather than by governments, and insofar as governments manage asylum seekers primarily as security threats rather than refugees, their treatment leads to the cordoning off of a group of people who are often given substandard subsistence, fenced in or detained, and implicitly condemned to “slow death.”

In sum, humanitarian aid is both the cure and the poison. It’s the cure insofar as right now it is the only chance we have for helping refugees under the current immigration and asylum policies of most nation-states. That is to say, until we move beyond nation-states and their alibi of humanitarian aid, groups such as Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross are absolutely necessary, and their volunteers and aid workers are praiseworthy. Yet, as long as we hold on to the alibi of humanitarian aid, a more properly political solution will not be forthcoming. As long as we continue to turn asylum seekers into criminals and charity cases, in need of incarceration or rescue, then we will have no hope of addressing the fundamental crisis of mass migration due to terrorism, civil wars, drought, famine, and climate change. As long as we continue to treat refugees as fungible or disposable, we risk the “worst.”