European Humanitarianism and the Refugee Crisis

Stories about the “refugee crisis” in Europe are dominating the media lately, as tens of thousands of people continue to pour into Eastern Europe, most of whom are fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq. This has caused fracturing of the EU along ideological lines, as some states see it as their “humanitarian duty” under international law to accept refugees, while others fear “Islamization” and economic stress caused by the influx of so many people.

The framing of this as a “humanitarian crisis” is relatively recent, although thousands of people have been desperately attempting to reach Europe over the last several years. Before 2015, people trying to “illegally” enter Europe were mostly referred to as “migrants”, undeserving of asylum or refugee status. Most of these people were fleeing endemic poverty and violence in various parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and their most common path to Europe was a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. While thousands drowned at sea, the EU scrambled to ensure better control of its “sea borders”. [1]

This year has seen massive amounts of people crossing from Turkey into Greece and the Balkans, both by land and sea. Most of these people are Syrians fleeing the civil war, and now the term “refugee crisis” has come into use, overshadowing the issue of “migrants” arriving from Africa. Europe is again scrambling to figure out a solution. [2] Some Eastern European states such as Hungary, citing economic and security concerns, have begun building fences and enacting strict border controls, in an attempt to keep refugees out. The EU as a whole has begun questioning the future of the Schengen zone, which allows for free movement between EU member states, without requiring a visa. Germany, initially the most accepting of the refugees, is now hinting at expedited EU membership for Turkey if it is able to seal its borders. [3]

This huge influx of people has sparked debate over who is “deserving” of asylum or protected refugee status. Clearly, the EU has decided, “migrants” fleeing endemic poverty and violence in Sub-Saharan Africa are not. Here I draw parallels to Ticktin’s study of the “illness” clause in French immigration law. In both cases, the logic of humanitarianism privileges some kinds of suffering over others: “illness (or war-related trauma) can cross borders, but poverty cannot” (Ticktin 39).  To obtain the special designation of “refugee” under international law, and thus permission to stay in Europe, refugees must “prove” their status in some way, by somehow providing documentation of their persecution, or medical proof of their suffering. [4] In this way, as Ticktin describes, people are reduced to their bare life by the state, creating a “meritocracy of suffering” (Ticktin 34). Among those who are considered “legitimate” refugees, there is a general tendency for Europe to be more sympathetic to those escaping IS, rather than those fleeing conflict in Somalia and Eritrea, “failed” states whose violence is so routine it receives little media attention.

Additionally, the terming of this a refugee “crisis” has interesting implications. As Redfield writes, a “crisis” is a “rupture from the normal that demands a decisive response” (Redfield 336). In this case that involves both providing for basic biological needs and creating a long-term solution for resettlement. Humanitarian groups providing aid to these refugees (in Europe as well as in Turkey) tend to reduce these people to their “zoë”: they provide food, shelter, and basic medical care. However, in most places, refugees are denied the right to work, and are not granted equal citizenship status, even if they are residing in their host countries indefinitely. This is best illustrated by the camps in Turkey and Jordan, which resemble cities and have housed some of the same Syrian families for up to 4 years: refugees are kept alive, but given no social, economic, or political rights. [5] As Redfield suggests, humanitarian groups, in their effort to stay “neutral” or “apolitical”, tend towards providing for basic needs rather than intervening in the conflicts that cause the displacement in the first place. Europeans and Americans are able to fulfill their “humanitarian duty” by taking in refugees displaced by the Syrian war, while also maintaining the guise of neutrality in the conflict. However, is was arguably Europe and America’s refusal to intervene meaningfully early in the Syrian conflict to push out Assad that has led to such a protracted, fragmented conflict. As Ticktin notes, the “crisis” of migration does not happen in a vacuum: immigration to France is a result of colonialism, and the displacement of millions of Syrians is partly due to Western complicity in a brutal war.

Under the system currently in place in Europe, this huge movement of people unfortunately necessitates some kind of “triage” in determining who is allowed to stay. However, the EU should look into the causes of these mass displacements and migrations (economic as well as war-related) and attempt to address them, rather than blocking out people who haven’t suffered “enough” to justify entry. Europe and the West have long been complicit in the conflicts and economic crises that lead to mass migration.


  1. How should wealthy countries decide whom to let across their borders? Is there any kind of ethical way to do this?
  2. How might the ability to enact “humanitarianism” in itself be a privilege? What are the power dynamics at play here?






Redfield, Peter. 2008. “Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis.” Cultural Anthropology 20(3): 328-361.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2006. “Where Ethics and Politics Meet: The Violence of Humanitarianism in France.” American Ethnologist 33(1): 33-49.

12 thoughts on “European Humanitarianism and the Refugee Crisis”

  1. Hi Elena,
    Thank you for your blog post; I can tell you put a lot of thought into this synthesis, and I thought the parallel you created between the readings and the current “refugee crisis” was very interesting and insightful. I especially appreciated your conclusion in which you identified Europe and the West’s complicity, which stems from both inaction and biased action.

    This general tendency of Europe to sympathize more with those escaping IS rather than those fleeing Somalia and Eritrea raises questions about what crises should be responded to in the humanitarian sector and how those crises should be defined. It also suggests that desensitization is a major player in humanitarianism: if a crisis does not seem to end, will help cease to be offered? Like you indicated, perhaps the answer to this question is a frightening yes; after all, European countries are questioning not only the future of the Schengen zone, but also whether or not to continue accepting refugees. How do you think we can go about preventing this desensitization and extending the length of time humanitarian aid is offered?

    Your blog also raises a question of when a “humanitarian duty” has been fulfilled; can humanitarianism be considered such if it does not provide social, economic, and political rights? Is humanitarianism achieved by only providing basic biological needs or refuge? Or does it necessitate bios in addition to zoe?

  2. Hi Elena,

    Thanks for posting! Your post got me thinking on the question of “who is responsible?” and “in what way is one responsible?”

    Syrian refugees are now migrating into European boarders. As you effectively portrayed in your post, this is causing concern and tension in many European countries. However, you also mention that this conflict ended up the way it is because America and Europe did not intervene and push out Assad.

    I think this is interesting because it reflects the unintended consequences of neutrality. However, I also cannot help but to think that these situations are often a double edged sword. Humanitarian groups as well as nations in power often take a neural stance in order to limit the consequences their actions may have. However, because of status and ability to help there is often this unspoken expectation that these developed countries and organizations should take action. If they remain impartial they are blamed. However, if they intervene they are accused of being too imposing and almost colonialist.

    For the most part I also believe that organizations and nations with power should not stay neutral. Part of me thinks it is almost impractical at times for humanitarian organizations remain neutral and in effect turn a blind eye. These powers should intervene when they can and do so in a way that is effective but not commanding or forceful. However, it is important to evaluate how these initiatives are understood and received because it influences how action is taken in the future.

  3. This was well-written and I couldn’t agree more with this statement: “immigration to France is a result of colonialism, and the displacement of millions of Syrians is partly due to Western complicity in a brutal war.” As Derana pointed out though, how should Western countries act? Should they open their doors to all refugees or should they deploy their own citizens or resources to countries in conflict? If the latter, how far to take it? In doing either method, Western countries have to ‘sacrifice’ certain things (citizens, resources, money) which may not always be supported by those already living in these countries. Although I am all for Western help, I think about the wars the U.S. has fought in overseas and the uproar this often caused in the American population. Many Americans would complain of “our troops” risking their lives and “our tax dollars” being “wasted” on such efforts. This surely puts Western governments in a state of confusion and gridlock when its own citizens are divided on these matters. As Brown students taking this Global Health class, we represent a small group of people who for the most part agree that Western help is important. However, there are also a lot of people who think the opposite, i.e. that we shouldn’t intervene. Given that, whose voices count?

  4. Elena,

    Your thoughtful consideration of the nuances of the “new” refugee “crisis” is particularly compelling, and I think the implication of this as a crisis (something immediately temporal, timely, and pressing) is very similar to the narratives surrounding disease reemergence and pandemics more generally. That it is deemed a crisis suggests that the threatened livelihood of refugees is new, is novel, and is only then worth our attention.

    Your conversation of borders and border patrol is particularly relevant, and in discussion of Turkey’s bid for EU membership, you highlight the politicizing of economic and social ties (which are implicated in unique ways within the world of humanitarianism, as we’ve discussed in class). Coupled with the barriers to health care, diagnosis, and ability to “prove” suffering, the concept of bordering/fencing/blockading aid becomes particularly problematic.

    In thinking about the rights of refugees and our discussion of a constantly more political mode of humanitarianism, how do you think we can go about providing legal rights to refugees, especially those in a health crisis, without involving the authoritarian structures already implicit in their suffering? How do we provide a refugee the right to work, equal citizenship, and other social rights? I agree with you that a refugee provided rights cannot be the product of apolitical humanitarianism, but how can humanitarianism progress politically without succumbing to corruption or bribery? What are the risk of a more political humanitarianism?

  5. Elena,

    I really enjoyed reading your post and was particularly impressed by your thorough comparison to the Syrian refugee crisis. It is so appropriate at this time in the world to analyze the meaning of “crisis,” because as you mentioned, states “whose violence is so routine it receives little media attention” are often ignored, and their people pushed away from the EU even more than Syrians. We can draw the dismaying conclusion that it is only fresh suffering that receives attention in developed countries, and as a result, their sympathy.

    It is hard to watch more and more countries within the EU turn a cold shoulder toward these refugees, even if they were once embraced with open arms. Humanitarianism and self-interest are by definition polar opposites. Yet in the case of the Syrian civil war, from which millions of refugees have emerged, these two philosophies unfortunately merge, pushed one way and another due to fear of Islamization, economic burdens, and the moral obligation to help fellow humans.

    When the refugees are inevitably triaged, as you called it, we certainly do reduce people to their zoe. But in the case of the illness clause in French migration, how much better can France do, when they built in the clause for humanitarian purposes? On a larger scale, is it feasible to build infrastructure in which to hold 9 million more people suddenly brought into the EU? With an ideal moral perspective, granting all refugees asylum is undoubtedly the answer. But the political complications that infiltrate supposedly apolitical fields of work fiercely limit compassion.

  6. Elena,

    Thanks for the post! You really helped me connect our readings and discussions to modern events and added some really helpful perspectives to these issues.

    In particular, Ticktin’s concept that illness (and war-related trauma, as you aptly added) can cross borders but poverty can not makes me connect this issue with something we have seen a lot in this class: exceptionalism, and “the production of emergency” or the popularity of disease. As Adia Benton talks about in her book, the exceptional nature of HIV/AIDS contributed to a huge surge in funding to combat the disease, but this funding was earmarked or otherwise narrow in focus – and it took money away from other areas in need. The same goes for individuals in Western Africa dying of Diabetes (or cancer, to draw from Livingstone’s book) instead of HIV or Ebola.

    There is something here about fear, I think. War is scary. So is infectious disease, and HIV. For some reason, Diabetes, Tuberculosis, and poverty aren’t that scary to us. The humanitarian neutrality that we are striving for here is not neutral in this sense – it is not impartial to need in such a way to “triage” effectively.

    I think the other comments here speak well on the pros and cons of neutrality in a political sense – which of course in its complicity helped create this situation in the first place, but in its inoffensiveness gives humanitarian action a sort of universal role to play (albeit a role of clean-up rather than prevention). That being said, I agree that it does not quite make sense to distinguish refugees of conflict from migrants of poverty – making suffering into a competition clearly does not demonstrate humanitarian values. However, these funds are (to some extent) limited, and I can’t escape the conflation between fear (or sympathy perhaps) and money that we keep seeing. Do we need to redefine what humanitarianism is? Or just appeal to the emotional relevance of other forms of human suffering, to vie for attention and resources?

    1. Also – wanted to share an article I found somewhat relevant, discussing the ongoing debate regarding accepting refugees into our own borders:

      The article (from ThinkProgress, a very liberally-biased newsource, honestly closer to a blog than anything else), talks about how a handful of state Governors pledge to actively refuse Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris bombings. Beyond commenting on the absurdity of this association, the article cites two supreme court cases ( & and the Refuge Act of 1980, which all essentially say that it is within the President’s jurisdiction to admit refugees facing persecution, that this power is particularly robust in the case of emergency refugee situations such as the one we currently have, and that since this is protected in the Constitution, states do not have the right to ignore this federal law.

      As someone who is particularly uneducated in matters of foreign policy and constitutional law, I found this interesting and someone relevant. At the very least it speaks a bit to how deeply engrained some of the humanitarian values are in our own countries legislation. The Act specifically says the President may accept refugees who face “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”. It is important to compare this to our own general immigration policies, which are not exactly easy, and riddled with difficult bureaucracy which makes many immigrants choose to not go through the hassle of acquiring a green card.

  7. Hi Elena,
    Thanks for a very thoughtful and relevant post! I found your discussion of privileging certain suffering to be especially interesting. I’m glad you brought up the idea that the EU has decided that migrants are not ‘deserving’ of asylum. On a broader more conceptual level, this sounded reminiscent of Peter Singer and his utilitarian ideas. By not accepting certain migrants and wielding authority to decide who is ‘worthy’ of asylum, in a way this is like placing value on certain lives over others which is the problematic idea at the core of many of Singer’s concepts.

  8. Hi Elena,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. It’s caused me to really think about this debate regarding who is “deserving” of the refugee status. How do you prove that you are clearly in need of aid, when other countries are trying to turn a blind eye? These vulnerable people likely left their countries without the so-called appropriate documentation that proves their suffering. Thus, as Jessica points out, these countries that should be accepting those who are seeking refuge are placing greater weight on some lives and less on others – a concept with which I do not agree. Had the situation been reversed, wouldn’t these people who are saying “no” to migrants want to hear a “yes”? We’ve talked about this concept in class, where one would most likely save a drowning child in a shallow pool of water but not a child starving in another country. It seems that our proximity to the dangerous situation correlates closely with our levels of empathy. Thus, how do we get countries to stop seeing Syrian refugees as unworthy of safety?

  9. Hi Elena,
    Thank you for your insightful blog post! It’s clear that you put a lot of thought into this, and you brought up some really interesting points. You brought up the problematic practice of ranking the suffering of refugees and how some in the EU are looking to only allow “legitimate” refugees into their borders. This shift towards bringing politics into humanitarianism has the power to make a significant difference in the lives of these refugees, but it seems to be based solely on if a certain country feels it has a moral obligation towards refugees. Like in France the government attempted to institute humanitarian policies by not deporting any immigrants who aren ill. While this was a nobel effort on the part of the French government, it of course had unanticipated consequences. Your examples definitely showed another side of this in which the government tries to limit the number of migrants by requiring poof of their status as refugees. I understand that a sudden population surge of refugees can place strains on a country, but I do think that there is a moral obligation is to help those who are suffering rather than to turn them away.

  10. Hello Elena!

    Thank you for such a thought provoking post. Your synthesis of the ‘refugee crisis’ and the ‘migrant problem’ with readings from our class was superb.

    The questions you pose are very complex and I don’t think I have a suitable answer to the first one because the very act of deciding whom to let through your borders seem problematic to me as it places relative values on human life. While I understand the (economic) compulsions of having to restrict the entry of refugees and migrants, I don’t think there is any ethical way to judge whose suffering is great enough to make them deserving of asylum. I found your juxtaposition of the migrants from ‘failed’ states like Somalia and Eritrea and the refugees in France (Tiktin) to be very compelling. It is rather alarming how we tend to forget the conflicts that have become an everyday reality in favor of the equally violent but relatively short-lived ‘present day’ crises (I don’t mean to take away from the importance of latter in any way).

  11. Hey Elena,
    Thanks for your post! It brought up a lot of really good points about the nature humanitarianism and really related it to a very much relative problem. I also really like the point that you made about being “deserving”of asylum. In your second discussion question you as if being able to enact “humanitarianism” is itself a privilege, and I would definitely agree.
    The impact of colonialism on the refugee crisis is something I had not really given much thought to the connection between but now I do see that there is a definite relationship, and this must be considered when talking about the “refugee crisis” as this does not occur in a vacuum.

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