hat does it mean when humanitarianism is the main response to systematic death and suffering at borders? In Humanitarian Borders: Unequal Mobility and Saving Lives, Polly Pallister-Wilkins examines the relationship between unequal mobility and the life-saving rescue efforts it spurs. Borders produce lethal risks and systemic vulnerability for those excluded from safe and legal travel. These risks lead policing organisations to take up humanitarian work and introduce humanitarian and grassroots actors into border spaces. Unequal mobility, Pallister-Wilkins argues, produces and shapes geographies of humanitarian intervention, while humanitarianism upholds and deepens unequal mobility.

The book is an insightful contribution to a field that is just beginning to reconcile with the “imperial duress of racialised mobility inequalities” (190). The colonial ordering of the world helped to produce borders and the state form (Mongia, 2018), while borders reproduce and rearticulate colonial orders into the present (de Noronha, 2019). While a labyrinth of infrastructures facilitates the ongoing extraction of resources from former colonies (M’charek, 2020), passports, visas, and other border technologies reproduce and rearticulate the global colour line (Pallister-Wilkins, 2022: 21).

In Humanitarian Borders, Pallister-Wilkins argues humanitarianism is integral to these racialised geographies. In Chapter Two, she traces the development of humanitarianism as a liberal form of governance implicated in colonialism. She describes how, in the wake of the Haitian revolution, colonial officials instituted ameliorative codes, protecting enslaved people from excessive working hours while preempting slave revolts and ensuring the profitability of slave economies (40-41). Meanwhile, the colonial government in Vancouver Island justified the expulsion of First Nation Salish to protect them against smallpox, brought over by European colonisers (42-43). As these examples suggest, white mobility made humanitarian acts possible, while humanitarianism helped sustain plantation capitalism and (settler) colonialism. Pallister-Wilkins argues that efforts to save lives and relieve suffering in today’s borderlands similarly render illegalised migrants “a problem to be addressed through a series of interventions as opposed to a living and breathing embodiment of global injustice” (62). Life-saving in borderlands, she shows, is often complicit in perpetuating the violence it responds to. To capture this dynamic, Pallister-Wilkins coins the term humanitarian borderwork.     

In Chapters Three to Five, Pallister-Wilkins explores three case studies of humanitarian borderwork. Despite acknowledging their heterogeneity in terms of politics and motivations, she thereby subsumes actors as diverse as Frontex, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and no-border activists under the same conceptual umbrella. As a consequence – as we will argue further below – we believe Pallister-Wilkins under-emphasises acts of meaningful contestation and resistance.

Chapter Three explores the humanitarian work of those policing borders, in which the “abominable logic of stopping through saving” (54) is most palpable. In one of many harrowing passages, Pallister-Wilkins quotes from the memoirs of US border patrol agent Francisco Cantú, who explains that he and colleagues crushed, pissed on, and set alight the stockpiles of people crossing the US-Mexico border clandestinely so that they give up and “save themselves” (53). In another passage, she describes how Greek border guards throw blankets at a group of freezing migrants, advising them to stand together like penguins to stay warm, only to detain them once they cross the border. These examples clearly illustrate how relieving suffering and policing can be sinisterly entangled.

And as Pallister-Wilkins explains, border police do more than gesture toward the humane. Take the example of the European Union (EU), the political geography Pallister-Wilkins draws most of her examples from and we know most about. In the EU, rescue and care structure policing organisations’ daily activities, shaping the border itself. For example, EU authorities rescue people in distress in the Mediterranean, and by doing so, are able to operate further away from EU shores, onto the territories of other states. Sometimes, by saving lives they are simply better able to keep people from reaching the EU, making life-saving and border control “two mutually achievable goals” (65). At other times, we would add, state authorities rather let people die than bring them to European shores, suggesting that life-saving and border control are not always mutually achievable.

Chapter Four follows the work of MSF. Here, the complex entanglements of humanitarianism and borders are in full view. Pallister-Wilkins cites MSF employees who readily acknowledge that unequal mobility creates the need for, and logistically makes possible, emergency interventions. Her interviewees also describe that operating in spaces such as refugee camps, hotspots, and the high seas requires state permission. As a result, as Michel Agier (2011: 33) explains, NGOs that seek such permission get “trapped,” or “at least included a priori in the control strategies of migratory flows of all kinds.” While MSF draws the line at cooperating with the so-called Libyan coastguard, it systematically hands life-seekers over to European authorities and the brutal system of legal sorting that follows. Moreover, as Pallister-Wilkins (83-84) importantly shows, when MSF employees lobby governments to protect the most vulnerable, they categorise migrants along hierarchies of vulnerability in much the same way that authorities do when deciding on asylum cases.

Still, NGOs also have effects on borders other than strengthening them that remain underexplored in the book. Consider Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean Sea. On the one hand, EU governments use all means at their disposal to regulate mobilities as “early” on and far away from the border as possible. David FitzGerald (2020) calls this process extra-territorialisation. This is the dynamic explored in-depth by Pallister-Wilkins when she explains how life-saving deepens borders’ reach into previously unpoliced spaces. On the other hand, extra-territorialisation is accompanied by hyper-territorialisation, a process by which states create the finest legal distinctions at the borderline: when it comes to migrant access to territorialised human and civil rights, every millimetre is made to count. From 2015 onwards, NGO vessels sailed closer and closer to Libyan territorial waters. Pallister-Wilkins characterises this move as expanding the reach of EU borders through saving. But by bringing people directly from international waters to European shores, NGOs also make the claiming of political rights available to people who are not yet on EU soil, thereby interfering with the process of hyper-territorialisation. It is in this context that EU authorities increasingly obstruct the work of NGOs and activists, by concocting endless practical and administrative obstacles and through criminal prosecution.

Chapter Five, called “Grassroots™ Humanitarianism,” describes the life-saving efforts of selfie-taking entrepreneurs, brand-building celebrities, charity-inspired volunteers, and no-border activists. Here, we believe the implications of subsuming diverse actors under the same label are most significant. Take the Alarm Phone, a hotline for people on the move in distress run by activists from across Europe and North Africa. By discussing Alarm Phone in a chapter titled Grassroots™ Humanitarianism, and under the conceptual umbrella of humanitarian borderwork, Pallister-Wilkins suggests that Alarm Phone’s work can be characterised as “reaffirm[ing] differentiations and hierarchies between the included and empowered citizens of the Global North and the excluded disempowered others” (136). It is of course true that the risk of becoming implicated in borderwork is real. This is something those involved in Alarm Phone are not only aware of but more importantly, continuously struggle against in practice. They do so by building on various anarchist, feminist, anti-racist, and decolonial political traditions, with the explicit aim of abolishing borders and the racialised hierarchies they engender. While no one can escape the political constellations they operate in, some activists and organisations consciously organise alongside life-seekers as they move or stay put, and against the border regimes that identify, detain, harm, and kill them. As Maurice Stierl (2016) points out, in the “sea of struggle,” the Alarm Phone aims to sustain a present-day “underground railroad.”  

We recognise that border struggles are made possible by unequal mobility. In the name of building underground railroads, some activists engage in care that keeps people “alive but unequal” (Puar, 2018, in Pallister-Wilkins, 2022: 180). Activists may also evoke the language of solidarity to build their brand. Perhaps this is especially jarring when it concerns white activists living in the rich world. In a recent interview, Fred Moten described this “obnoxious festival” of posturing solidarity as “the bad breath of the white world.” Still, many others, all over the world, take on this work meaningfully, keeping much of what they do invisible from authorities and the general public. A priori characterising grassroots life-saving and care as Grassroots™ or humanitarian borderwork is to miss out on the chance of recognising transformative alternatives.

In Chapter Six, Pallister-Wilkins asks whether humanitarianism can be decolonised and explores what Indigenous understandings of movement and place can offer those of us concerned with mobility justice. We agree that “[r]adical and transformative alternatives to liberal systems of government cannot come in the form of liberal solutions” (200-201). When structured around the figure of the suffering migrant, humanitarianism shifts the focus from the political struggle for mobility justice to the post-political project of relieving human suffering. Destabilising the dangerous idea that rescue and care are the only possible responses to border violence, and are inherently good, is important work that Pallister-Wilkins’ book excels in. At the same time, recognising and amplifying attempts to create what Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2019) calls life-affirming institutions is equally important, especially in the context of borders that kill. Not all care is entangled with control (Dadusc & Mudu, 2022). Some care is revolutionary, and revolutionary struggles are rooted in an ethic of caring for and with (James, 2022). Similarly, not all life-saving at borders is borderwork. When people living and working along dangerous routes save people from dying, as fishermen working along North African coasts have done for many years (M’charek, 2023), it is often just that: saving lives. And sometimes, life-saving at the border establishes underground railroads and plants the seeds for future mobile commons. Building life-affirming institutions whilst purposefully challenging injustice is difficult, messy work that requires constant critique and reflexivity, but we believe taking on this struggle is the only way. We hope that Pallister-Wilkins’ book inspires people to do so.


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Neske Baerwaldt and Wiebe Ruijtenberg are the hosts and producers of de Verbranders, a podcast on Europe’s borders and resistance against them. In her dissertation, Neske Baerwaldt draws on fieldwork in the German-Austrian border region to examine how borders rearticulate racial orders into the present. In his dissertation, Wiebe Ruijtenberg draws on fieldwork with Egyptians in Amsterdam to investigate how migration and immigration politics mediate human life.