The context of global humanitarianism has been growing throughout the years. Peter Redfield’s Doctors, Boarders, and Life in Crisis, along with Miriam Ticktin’s The Violence of Humanitarianism in France, really paint a picture of major consequences that are associated with humanitarianism. The first are the consequences associated with this transition of humanitarianism to politics. The second is the possible dehumanization of those who are being helped. After reading the examples provided by both authors, it is clear that there has been a shift in what humanitarianism is and that sometimes it creates a limited version of what it means to be human.
This shift of humanitarianism to politics is illustrated with the “illness clause” in French law. This clause gives people with serious illness the right to stay in France regardless of if they are an undocumented immigrant. This clause was created as an alternative to human rights discourse and for those who did not obtain rights based on the states interests (Ticktin, 5). Due to this, the illness clause made sickness a primary way for undocumented citizens to get papers to stay in France. People would even go as far as infecting themselves with an illness such as HIV/ AIDs just so they could stay in France and “live more fully.” In this case, humanitarianism, seen with the illness clause, shifting to politics resulted in a consequence where the undocumented were giving up bodily integrity for human dignity. These immigrants would rather live a fuller life infected with HIV/AIDS than be completely healthy and deported. Some citizens even took up identities of friends who had died of HIV/AIDS just to stay in the country (Ticktin, 8). In essence, this clause is allowing undocumented immigrants to place less value on their lives and create a limited version of what it means to be human. In France these people are giving up an opportunity to a healthy life just to be considered a citizen.
The dehumanization that can be associated with humanitarianism can be seen in the refugee camps mentioned in Doctors, Boarders and Life in Crisis. Even though these camps foster the possibility of mass survival, the figure of a human still emerges from behind that of a citizen (Redfield, 341). The goal of these refugee camps may be to aid those who have suffered from severe political and ecological instability, however, it is important to note that they do play a role of devaluing human life. In these camps, the refugee’s dignity and citizenship are put into question. Here the only things that matter are calorie intake, hydration and shelter (Redfield, 342). Yes these are very important aspects of life that need to be protected. However, because these aspects are the biggest and only concerns of the camp, individuals loose their ability to voice their opinions and perform acts of civil virtue. In this sense, the person is being seen not as a person but just as another body in the camp.
This is again seen in the worlds second largest refugee camp in Jordan. This camp holds more that 80,000 people whose lives are on hold and going nowhere (Swan, BBC). For some of these refugees, life in the camp holds such little value and hope that they would rather return home to Syria. On one hand obviously these refugee camps are providing safety and life to those who were in danger, but on the other hand these people are losing what it means to be alive. An important question must be asked: what, if anything, should we do to help these people who are already suffering maintain the feeling of what it means to be alive?
- How do humanitarians ensure that in providing necessary materials for living, that they are also providing what is essential to feel human?
- Is there a way to stop or at least limit this shift of humanitarianism to politics?
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.
“Lives on Hold: The Scots Helping Syrians in a Refugee Camp – BBC News.” BBC News. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.