On the shore

They chew their old papers

Devouring their faces

To cross nameless

The gnawed papers float

Border guards jubilate rescuing the papers

Leaving unknown corpses sink

Their sole


Land on mountains of life jackets.

- Cihad Hammy


I must first thank Anja Franck, Elisa Pascucci, Nisha Toomey, Hanno Brankamp, Samid Suliman, and Neske Baerwaldt and Wiebe Ruijtenberg for their exceedingly generous and close readings of my book Humanitarian Borders: Unequal Mobility and Saving Lives (Verso). As their interventions make clear, Humanitarian Borders is an exploration of the ambivalent politics of saving lives in response to violent borders and mobility injustice and a catalogue of my research journey since 2012. Finalised in 2020, the book introduces the reader to the multiplicity of actors involved in what I call humanitarian borderwork (Jones et al., 2017), where humanitarian, life saving efforts responding to border violence work to (re)produce borders and introduce new actors into the border regime. The narrative is structured around three actor case studies: state actors with a specific focus on EUrope, institutionalised NGO actors with a specific focus on Médecins Sans Frontières, and grassroots actors with a specific focus on those active in Lesvos, Greece. These in-depth case studies attempt to communicate the differences between the actors, and more specifically, “differences in motivation; differences in how they exercise compassion; different ideas about action in times of crisis; how different border spaces impact the types of risks faced by refugees and migrants and subsequent forms of rescue; the different resources at rescuers’ disposal; divergent standpoints on the violence of borders and unequal mobility; and the complex politics that these differences suggest” (14).

The book was written in, “celebration of a shared stand against unequal mobility and the dangers inflicted by borders today” (16) alongside the injustices of white supremacy and racial capitalism and in solidarity with those, professional humanitarians, and ordinary citizens alike, who attempt to respond to and alleviate the risks of irregularised border crossings. However, the book is also an expression of my anger at the limits of a liberal politics of rescue and a caution against seeing “life-saving efforts as a panacea or as a sustainable and just ‘solution’ to the violence and harm caused by unequal mobility” (16-17).

Now, with that brief introduction out of the way, I will address some of the book’s absences observed by my colleagues and in turn highlight the work of others. In this response I mainly want to continue the conversation started by my generous interlocutors and to focus on, like the book’s conclusion does, possible futures. As Anja Franck rightly highlights I am careful in the book to take on the ‘building of worlds or futures’, because I consider this a collaborative conversation that must be undertaken in partnership with others as the pre-emptive politics of crafting alternative, just futures, demands a collective effort. The recognition of a work in progress and the desire to be in conversation with others underpins the inclusion of the poem that starts this intervention. It is written by Cihad Hammy in response to his reading of Humanitarian Borders and draws on his attempts to make poetic sense of, in his words, “his own experiences and the experiences of others who have crossed borders and lived in camps” (Personal correspondence).

Concerning absences, Hanno Brankamp rightly points to the absence of life seeker voices in the book, asking to hear of their experiences of encountering violent borders and humanitarian rescue. Research and writing are always made up of active choices and active silences and the stories of life seekers are not a focus of the book for reasons pragmatic, ethical and personal. The choice not to make life seekers an active presence is shaped in part by decisions I made concerning the focus of argument and subject of critique as well as a recognition of many excellent works that centre life seeker voices. For recent examples see Sally Hayden’s My Fourth Time, We Drowned (2022) and Matthieu Aikins’ The Naked Don’t Fear the Water (2022) whom I had the honour of joining at the Edinburgh Book Festival on a panel titled Bordering on Inhumane. But it should come as no surprise that during my time spent in various borderlands that the experiences and stories of life seekers expanded my understanding, fuelled my anger, and shaped my argument. Their experiences are therefore an absent presence.

The choice not to make life seeker voices an active presence is shaped in part by the focus of argument and subject of critique but also by the spectacles of suffering discussed in Humanitarian Borders. I spent many days witnessing people arrive on the beaches of Lesvos having endured the discomfort and dangers of the dinghy crossing only to be confronted with a frenzied collection of journalists and volunteers demanding their story, their picture, and in some cases their children for the necessary publicity and funding-generating selfies. All of which fostered disgust and solidified my long-running unease with power hierarchies in research. It is what Nisha Toomey calls ‘cringing’. A “healthy reflex, a natural reaction to the blunt reality” (Toomey, 2022: 25) that as researchers we draw authority from and bolster our own authority, and more broadly that of academia and the university as an institution from our research encounters.

Like Toomey, I cringed at the idea of asking for life seekers’ stories in these brief moments of encounter. Who was I to interrupt their joy at having survived a potentially fatal sea crossing, at having arrived at a destination they believed would be their salvation, their future? Who was I to intrude upon that hope, to butt in on their tearful phone calls to family and their quiet contemplation, or simply their desires to go and do a bit of sightseeing, grab a nice lunch in the local taverna and buy a gelato before they had to face the process of registration at the Hotspot and — depending on when they arrived — stand in a queue for five days in human shit, or face the prospect of months spent living in a makeshift shelter or if they were ‘lucky’ an IKEA house (Monk and Herscher, 2021; Pascucci, 2021; Scott-Smith, 2019)? Who was I to disturb the quiet, strength, and determination of the woman who leapt from the dinghy while untucking her skirt from her knickers, strode across the beach while lighting a roll-up with a vintage zippo and simply headed off with a purpose and confidence that suggested she knew exactly where to go and what to do? In longer moments of waiting, I was offered people’s stories of homes, journeys, and their disappointment with what they found upon arrival: the shit, filth, lack of facilities, and bureaucratic violence.

I cringe to think of intruding upon the quiet dignity of the woman on the beach. But I also rage at the injustices faced by those I met, and yes, as Anja Franck observes, that rage is often communicated through sarcasm at the absurdity of it all. I rage at the injustice faced by those like the little girl dressed in her best yellow coat on the plane from Mytilene to Athens (when it was still possible for life seekers with airline accepted ID to fly internally within Greece). Travelling with her parents, all three were simply thrilled to be making the next stage of their journey to join family members in Belgium. I raged internally and felt compelled to apologise to her parents about how they had been subjected to crossing the sea in a dinghy and then made to stand in a queue of human shit for five days only to receive the response, مش مشكلة (no problem). I cringe. I do not have their consent to tell their stories, their (as Anja Franck, 2022, has brilliantly shown) absurd and laughable encounters with border violence.

Moving on from cringing and turning my attention to conversations about possible futures. Here I find Samid Suliman’s contention that this is also a book about Australian bordering to be provocative in the best sense of the word. The book has an empirical focus on Europe but draws on much larger histories of bordering centred around white supremacy and the desire of White Men’s Countries to prevent undesirable Black and Brown mobilities (Lake and Reynolds, 2008; Sheller, 2018) alongside colonial histories of humanitarianism the politics and practices of which have been intimately shaped by encounters across distance (Lester and Dussart, 2014; Pallister-Wilkins, 2022). Suliman invokes the indomitable Edward Said’s idea of contrapuntal reading that asks us to be cognisant of connected histories, aware of both imperial power and resistance, working to actively include that which has been forcibly excluded (Said, 1994).

This demand has recently been taken up in relation in border and migration studies by Beste İşleyen and Nora El Qadim (2023) who advance the concept of entanglements to make sense of the coproduction of borders across, time, space and multiple scales. As they argue: “looking at historical entanglements and at the connection between past and present (post)colonial contexts sheds new light on postcolonial migration and on arguments that present it as a matter of decolonization (Achiume, 2019) or of reparation (Nevins, 2019), even if only among other forms of reparative actions in favour of ‘global distributive justice’ (Bhambra, 2021: 94-95)” (7). With Suliman’s invocation of Said’s contrapuntal reading, and İşleyen and El Qadim’s request for a consideration of entanglements, I want to think about what a critique of humanitarian borders would look like if written from my non-European standpoint? This is an important question as it touches on the Eurocentrism of humanitarianism as a norm and practice. But it also calls attention to both the implicit Eurocentrism of many of the excellent critiques of humanitarianism that are written by scholars from and located in the political academic economies of the Global North and the Eurocentrism of many of our histories of territory, sovereignty, borders, and migration regimes as Darshan Vigneswaran (2020) has recently made clear. Therefore, what does this history look like if written from a vantage point where the Treaty of Westphalia is not the holy grail (see Quirk and Vigneswaran, 2015; Vigneswaran, 2020)?

What happens if we, as Nisha Toomey argues, “refuse the nation-state as an organising logic”? Here, I want to take up the challenge of the “human view” laid down by Sylvia Wynter (1996, 2003) in her explorations of the effects of 1492 and the encounters that followed. The impact of Sylvia Wynter on my own thinking about current conglomerations (Pallister-Wilkins, 2022) and possible futures (Pallister-Wilkins et al., 2023), and it appears on the thinking of my colleagues here is profound. As Toomey, drawing on Wynter suggests, humanitarianism, “promotes narrow definitions of humanity as tied to membership within nation states and defines nation statehood through colonial borders.” The methodological nationalism of liberal humanitarianism — that while often claiming to stand in for state action, sees the state as all too often the primary instigator of harm, the principal political actor, and the central actor of change — letting racial capitalism off the hook in the process, is an underexplored area of critique in critical humanitarianism studies. In Toomey’s work on humanitarian responses in the Thai-Myanmar borderlands (2022), she extends this critique to humanitarianism’s Eurocentric acceptance of state sovereignty, territory and borders, alongside colonially imposed proprietary conceptions of land and land use (Bhandar, 2018) and the modernist separation of human and nature. This split, and colonial relations of land as property, Toomey argues, have profound effects on western humanitarianism’s ability to understand and react justly to the displaced living in the Thai-Myanmar borderlands and remain a roadblock for any attempt at decolonising humanitarianism and/or reparative action forming as they do the bedrock of capitalist exploitation and structural injustice in the present.

Meanwhile membership of nation-states as an organising principle also limits radical border politics. As addressed by many critics of the current Global North border regime that has come to dominate global mobility, the state is the only political actor ultimately capable of determining who belongs, whether this is through processes of citizenship or through the granting of asylum. Within current sovereign configurations, alongside regularised migration, asylum is one of, if not the only, route to safety and a secure future for many meaning actions and politics that remain within such a register (often unwittingly) reaffirm sovereign power (El-Enany, 2021) and, thus, cannot be considered within a politics of border abolition even if they assist individual life seekers to make a future.

Alongside the interventions gathered here, Elisa Pascucci, Hanno Brankamp and myself along with a number of other colleagues (scholars and practitioners) have been thinking and writing about humanitarian futures and the possibilities of a move beyond what I have recently called the huMan subject of huManitarianism (Pallister-Wilkins, 2022), and the possibilities of reparative forms of care and abolition. We push for a plurality of humanitarianisms or whatever names we might want to give them: solidarity, mutual aid... And argue for a future that, “genuinely uplifts a wide spectrum of humanities and their interspecies relations, fully acknowledging and engaging with the historical and contemporary imbalances of power, conceptual and material injustices that demand redress” (Pallister-Wilkins et al., 2023: 301). We contend that, “future humanitarianisms should engage seriously with, and grow from, the promises of abolitionist practices that expose and act to dismantle carceral and militarist institutions” (Ibid). Carceral and militarist institutions that in turn practice order violence and uphold mobility injustice. Such abolitionist moves, we argue, “would offer more than “tearing down” places and practices of unfreedom by concurrently building more equitable social relations (Davis, 2005: 75).  The kinds of changes imagined are materialist, focused on more-than-human, and “emplaced” forms of care that contrast with existing systems and practices of racialized expertise, audit cultures, and “global” logistical management. In short, humanitarianism has many potential futures, but these must be fundamentally and not superficially different than its past” (Pallister-Wilkins et al., 2023: 301).


I would like to thank the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand for their hospitality in hosting me during the writing of this response.


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Polly Pallister-Wilkins is a political geographer and associate professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Amsterdam. Alongside a research focus on the intersections of border violence, mobility injustice and humanitarian intervention she is interested in the role of humanitarianism in sustaining white supremacy, and the im/possibilities of decolonisation.