All posts by Elena A Pruett-Fiederlein

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.