Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe” – “Humanitarian Crisis”

The New Keywords Collective presents an analysis of how we come to use terms such as ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’, ‘crisis’, and ‘rescue’, shedding light on our ideas about managing borders.
This article belongs in a series entitled: Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”. You can find more information about the project and all the articles, here.

by Martina Tazzioli, Nicholas De Genova, Elena Fontanari, Irene Peano + Maurice Stierl via nearfuturesonline

Illustration by Petja Dimitrova (

Beyond the ongoing disputes and unresolved debates among politicians, policy-makers, advocates, journalists, and scholars over the validity or usefulness of the labels “refugee” or “migrant” for designating those who have come to Europe over recent months or years seeking asylum, what is plainly at stake today in the border regions of Europe is a mass displacement of people fleeing the violence and disruptions of life arising from wars, occupations, insurgencies, and civil wars. It has become convenient politically to attribute much of the current “crisis” to events in Syria (where there continues to be a pertinent question of continuing, renewed, or expanded military intervention by various global or regional powers), but the mobilities of people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Mali, among many other countries of origin, immediately raise the specters of warfare, invasions, and protracted military occupations perpetrated by various European powers (albeit usually alongside the United States). In short, the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe has its origins to a significant extent in areas of severe conflict that have been instigated or aggravated directly by strategic European geo-political and economic interests across the globe.

Thus, it is indispensable to identify the war-migration nexus as an essential part of what today needs to be deeply investigated both for re-thinking a politics of asylum beyond the well-established exclusionary criteria and for revitalizing a critique of the larger European border regime (see “Politics of protection” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Over the last few years, the government of migration in the Mediterranean Sea in particular has been characterized by military-humanitarian interventions intended to simultaneously “rescue” and “interdict” migrants. Operations such as Italy’s Mare Nostrum and Frontex’s Triton, focused on the task of intercepting migrant vessels even prior to their distress at sea, have directly contributed to this sort of militarized humanitarianism. Through this equivocal politics of “rescue,” and of course always as a result of the restrictions imposed by EU-rope’s Schengen visa regime, subjects “in need of protection” have been effectively forced to convert themselves into shipwrecked lives to be saved at sea. Meanwhile, a concomitant politics of preemptive containment has involved preventing migrants from even leaving Libya’s shores to come to Europe to seek asylum, and has been enacted through the negotiation of various bilateral agreements with so-called “third countries” in order to fortify the “pre-frontiers” of Europe. Furthermore, the launch in the summer of 2015 of the EU military mission EUNavFor-Med has been officially promoted as a “war against smugglers” and as a militarized strategy for protecting migrants from “traffickers,” but in fact signifies the coordination at the EU level of efforts to contain migrant and refugee mobilities and forcefully obstruct and disable the logistics of migratory crossings at sea. Meanwhile, increasingly during the second half of 2015, the “politics of rescue” has been substantially replaced with enforcement policies aimed at either blocking or repelling refugees and migrants at the eastern borders of EU-rope. Simultaneously, new measures are underway to install asylum processing centers in Turkey in order to circumvent the continued intrusion of the “refugee crisis” onto “European” territory. In this respect, notably, not only border policing as such but also the asylum system itself becomes implicated in the further externalization of the EU’s border controls (see “Externalization” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015).

Humanitarianism has thus been conscripted to play a crucial role in re-framing the governmental rationale of “migration management” and border control amidst an escalation of border deaths: refugees and migrants, or rather, “people in need of protection” – in striking contrast with those who were previously suspected of being “fake” or “bogus” refugees – have increasingly come to be represented in the mass media and governmental discourses as vulnerable and desperate persons to be “saved” from the perils of maritime crossings on unseaworthy boats, and thereby “protected” from their own migratory aspirations as well as the real or imagined predations of “criminal” syndicates of migrant “smugglers.” Nevertheless, refiguring these migrants and refugees thus as “victims” in need of protection and rescue has not in any substantial way undermined the simultaneous socio-political and legal construction of them as “illegal” (and hence, undesirable and unwelcome) “migrants,” finally susceptible for detention and deportation. On the other hand, the humanitarian purview of border control re-institutes the implicit opposition between “refugees” and (“economic”) “migrants,” routinely invoked to legitimize the former and stigmatize the latter. By implication, unlike “mere” migrants (figured as opportunistic and lawless), “refugees” (figured as innocent victims) deserve to be rescued.

However, particularly in the aftermath of the spectacle of terrorism, with France’s proclamation of a “state of emergency” in reaction to the 13 November 2015 attacks in Paris, and in the wake of the moral panic over sexual assaults during the 2016 New Year’s Eve events in Cologne/Köln – along with the various re-establishments of EU internal border controls in the face of the more general “refugee crisis” – the refugee has been recently re-figured as the potential “terrorist” who surreptitiously infiltrates the space of Europe, or as the potential “criminal” or “rapist” who corrodes the social and moral fabric of “Europe” from within. Nebulous and spectral affiliations are invoked to encompass refugees, migrants, “smugglers,” “sexual deviants,” “criminals,” “terrorists,” and “foreign fighters” as an inchoate continuum: hence, the “fake” asylum-seeker re-appears now not only as the actual (duplicitous) “economic migrant,” but also as the (deviant) “rapist” whose “culture” or “morals” are simply inimical to the “European” way of life, or as the (devious) “terrorist” who conceals himself among the “genuine” refugees in order to wreak havoc upon “Europe.” Thus, the misleading binary opposition between “migrants” and “refugees” is further complicated through the insinuation of a tricky continuum ranging from people “in need of protection” to “predators” or “enemies” against whom “Europe” itself must be protected.

The hyper-visibility of various border scenes of “rescue” are invariably accompanied by “the obscene supplement” of “subordinate inclusion” (De Genova 2013b; see also “Differential inclusion/exclusion” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). What happens to migrants and refugees after the spectacularized scene of perilous arrival, “rescue,” and disembarkation – particularly, after being rejected as refugees – is systematically overshadowed. Thus, the spectacularization of “the humanitarian crisis” obscures other realities, most notably the subordinate incorporation of “rejected asylum-seekers” and other illegalized migrants through the exploitation of their labor (see “Migrant labour” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Furthermore, alongside these (non-EU citizen) “asylum-seeker” workers, there is the invisibilization of the untold hundreds of thousands of EU-citizen workers employed in many of the same jobs under virtually the same or very comparable conditions, from agricultural labor to low-paid marginal service work in cities, such as various forms of domestic service or cleaning offices. Hence, the spectacle of “humanitarian crisis” serves to occlude other possible narratives and analyses concerning cross-border mobility, and – by thus effectively re-bordering these parallel mobilities and social conditions and re-fortifying the juridical inequalities of the regime of citizenship – fuels divisions and antagonisms between “citizens” and “migrants” over access to work and resources. Simultaneously, as with any other “emergency,” the humanitarian “crisis” is seized upon as an economic opportunity. Here, border externalization does not operate only in relation to mechanisms of rescue / selection / immigration control – all highly lucrative enterprises for the military-security-prison-industrial complex – but is also evidenced in the forms through which refugee and asylum-seeker management (which serve simultaneously as forms of containment and control) are provided, through the devolution or outsourcing of diverse types of service provision (from screening to housing to counseling) to private companies and third-sector organizations. Whether mired in high-profile public scandals, as was the case with the “Mafia Capitale” affair in Italy (which exposed the entanglements of politicians from across the spectrum with neo-fascist gangs and profiteering service providers), or ensconced in the ordinary workings of the governmental machinery, as in Sweden (where the costs of accommodation for asylum-seekers charged by private companies are exorbitant), the management of migrants and refugees under the humanitarian regime is a multi-million-euro business.

The “humanitarian crisis” has thus been pivotal for the consolidation of a governmental regime comprising a complex ensemble of public authorities, private businesses, and third-sector agencies collaborating in various ways in the management and control of “asylum seekers” and “refugees,” enacting a minimalist biopolitics that ensures their most basic needs of survival, rather than facilitating the expression of their autonomous subjectivities and the pursuit of their migratory projects. Indeed, through various legal restrictions (such as expressly temporary juridical statuses or prohibitions on mobility, residence, and work), coupled with spatial confinement or social segregation, the humanitarian regime aims to produce and discipline “passive”(victimized) subjects, who – if they transgress these restrictions and violate the multiple borders and legal constraints imposed by humanitarian government – are immediately treated as “suspect” or “dangerous” people: they are summarily illegalized and must consequently be brought under extraordinary control and surveillance. Vacillating between treating the migrants and refugees on unseaworthy boats in the Mediterranean Sea as “victims” to be “rescued,” while thereafter (within the ensuing days, weeks, or months) seeking to arrest and discipline them as “illegal” border crossers when they attempt to continue their migratory trajectories further onward in EU-rope, the “humanitarian crisis” is a sign of the vexations that both EU and nation-state authorities confront in classifying and regimenting these contested and disobedient mobilities.