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ow did migration turn into a threat to life that now requires almost constant humanitarian action? This is the underlying question that Polly Pallister-Wilkins asks in Humanitarian Borders: Unequal Mobility and Saving Lives. The book offers a lucid, sharp and sobering analysis of the close entanglements between borders, group-differentiated mobility control and the politics of compassion along Europe’s frontiers—famously the world’s deadliest. Rooting her argument in the longue durée of racialised (im)mobility regimes that preceded our current moments of “crisis”, Pallister-Wilkins dissects everyday humanitarian borderwork in the Mediterranean while raising urgent questions about the continued relevance of liberal (Western) humanitarianism at a time of fascist, nationalist and white supremacist restoration the world over. She highlights a need to interrogate the ethical tension between well-intentioned acts of humanitarian rescue that save lives, while also recognising their unmistakably colonial grammar and inadvertent reproduction of systemic violence. Pulling no punches, the book is an invitation to critically rethink (and begin to remake) humanitarian action with the ultimate aim of dismantling the “global colour line” (Lake and Reynolds, 2008; see DuBois, 2015 ) that continues to fuel mobility injustice today.
In tracing humanitarian borders in southern Europe, the book ambitiously weaves together the diverse experiences of actors who sit at the very heart of everyday bordering yet without reducing them to mere caricatures, as may be tempting to do. We meet Greek police officers who are palpably torn between the tasks of fighting “bad guys” and securing Europe’s borders while also limiting human suffering amongst the border-crossers they are supposed to intercept. Equally, we learn about seasoned aid workers within Medicine Sans Frontières (MSF) who get increasingly drawn into the “sticky” web of coercive borderwork on the island of Lesvos, which undermines their attempts to “do good”. Lastly, humanitarian grassroots volunteers enter this scene armed with extraordinary optimism, compassion and a strong will to break the existing institutional mould, bringing them on collision course with more established NGOs and the state. By providing these different narrative frames based on years of in-depth empirical research, the book manages to bring to life what could be described as the humanitarian “Wild West” of southern Europe and the characters who people it, while always reminding readers that the humanitarian border they inhabit “is a symptom and not a cure” (17).
Theoretically, the book also offers much food for thought. While the overall anchor point of the book are Pallister-Wilkins’ past writings on “humanitarian borderwork”, it also extends this analysis by more deliberately unearthing its colonial genealogy and rootedness in global white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Most striking perhaps, in theoretical terms, is therefore the book’s mobilization of (settler) colonial histories brought into conversation with Black feminist thinkers to make sense of today’s humanitarian justifications for enforcing territorial exclusions of some humans and not others. Pallister-Wilkins links the “imperial duress” of unequal limits on human migration (Stoler, 2016; Lake and Reynolds, 2008) with the emergence of particular racialized visions of “the human” modelled on the master signifier of white “Man” that continues to reverberate in the present (Kotef, 2015; Weheliye, 2014; Wynter, 2003). It becomes clear that troubling global liberal order by pointing to its failure to prevent violence and uphold human rights misses the point. Rather humanitarian borders, as Pallister-Wilkins sees them, come into being precisely where liberal ideas of freedom and rights directly rub up against the reality of racial world-ordering. Notwithstanding the book’s many virtues, its theoretical finesse, utter readability and my deep sympathy for its argument, I take Polly’s invitation for discussion seriously and would like to address two issues that struck me while reading the text.
First, the book is clearly a powerful call for mobility justice directed at scholars, activists, allies and everyone in between. However, the voices of migrants and life-seekers themselves are few and far between. To be clear, a tokenistic “inclusion” of such perspectives for the mere sake of their inclusion is also undesirable, especially when it masks rather than illuminates the hierarchised and exclusive nature of particular social spaces, including research itself (Ahmed 2012). In some cases, the invocation of refugee or migrant “voices” may even veer into voyeurism or—worse still—risk "reinforcing the apartheid-like logics of the refugee regime”, as anthropologist Heath Cabot (2019: 268) has recently warned. But in this book, it would have undoubtedly added some more multidimensionality and texture to people on the move who, in Pallister-Wilkins’ own words, are “a living, breathing embodiment of global injustice” (62). Indeed, this seems particularly crucial in debates about life and death, that are concerned with experiences at once so visceral and (for many) so unimaginable that they warrant constant methodological soul-searching. Admittedly, the book is not entirely devoid of migrant protagonists. The tragic border death of José Matada appears early on in the book, making him perhaps one of the many “silenced subjects” who, as Heath Cabot argues, “index both the limits and possibilities of representation” (Cabot, 2016: 645). But representations of life-seekers need not even be this extreme. Even though the book may quite rightly be “studying up”, I would have liked to get a sense of less spectacular experiences of migrant survivors in the border spaces that Pallister-Wilkins so effectively describes. For how can we speak about the ethical, social and political dilemmas of humanitarian borderwork, even as scholars firmly on the side of mobility justice and against border imperialism, without also hearing how this “rescue” is perceived, understood and theorised in moments of dire need (and after)?
My second point is about the book’s outlook on humanitarian futures. Pallister-Wilkins ends by asking what humanitarianism is ultimately “good for” in the current political moment marked by an illiberal anti-humanitarian politics. Having unpacked the colonial legacies of aid, and its liberal will to help suffering strangers near and far, the book considers a more just future in which humanitarianism and unequal mobility regimes are confronted with current calls for “decolonisation”. In short, can one even decolonise humanitarianism? Polly here asserts rather powerfully that the aim of reimagining a truly universal humanity is best served by embracing more radical actions against borders, racism, colonial hierarchies and state-sanctioned deaths which can then, ultimately, be considered the real “humanitarian work” (199). Though I am generally supportive of this sentiment, and its move to complement minimalist life saving with more radical world-building, I am tempted to jettison the frame of “humanitarianism” altogether. In following the work of theorists like Sylvia Wynter, who sets out a vision of non-exclusionist and non-biocentric humanity that is no longer tethered to the towering figure of imperial “Man” (Wynter, 2003), Pallister-Wilkins tentatively salvages the frame of “the human” and, perhaps reluctantly, also that of humanitarianism with it, though she concedes that “it is a necessary lesser evil until we see an end to mobility injustice and the global colour line” (203). Others, like sociologist Akwugo Emejulu (2022), have explicitly disavowed the aim to reconstitute a different kind of humanity because for her the human itself “is theorised and practised as an enclosure” (7) and cannot as such be remade. Her proposition is to relinquish the false promise of humanity in order to move towards a radical horizon of collective action, not as human but as social beings, instead. What would this mean for a future of life saving beyond humanitarianism? While the last chapter in Pallister-Wilkins’ book is necessarily speculative, and itself an invitation for debate, it is worth considering this divestment from a humanitarian anti-politics through political alter-solidarities and social practices in the form of mutual aid, anarchism, municipalism and so on to build cooperative life saving futures.
Despite the above points, I am deeply grateful for Humanitarian Borders: Unequal Mobility and Saving Lives. Its aim to further conversations in critical humanitarian and migration studies about racial justice, mobility justice and possible decolonial futures could not be more timely and will surely generate much needed debate, as it already has in this forum. Opening dialogues between a variety of literatures and disciplines, Pallister-Wilkins’ book offers a conceptually sophisticated and empirically rich account of how and why humanitarian borders in the Mediterranean have come into being the way that they have, while also giving us truly original insights into the “humanitarian present” (Weizman, 2011). I can only commend Pallister-Wilkins on a book that is both fabulous and delightfully rad.
Ahmed S (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Cabot H (2019) The business of anthropology and the European refugee regime. American Ethnologist 46(3): 261-275.
Cabot H (2016) “Refugee Voices”: Tragedy, Ghosts, and the Anthropology of Not Knowing. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 45(6): 645-672.
DuBois WEB (2015 ) The Souls of Black Folk. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Emejulu A (2022) Fugitive Feminism. Silver Press.
Kotef H (2015) Movement and the Ordering of Freedom: On Liberal Governances of Mobility. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Lake M and Reynolds H (2008) Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stoler AL (2016) Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Weheliye AG (2014) Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, And Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Weizman E (2011) The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. London: Verso.
Wynter S (2003) Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/ Power/ Truth/ Freedom. CR: The New Centennial Review 3(3): 257–336.
Hanno Brankamp is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Geography, Durham University, UK. His research focuses on the geographies of im/mobility, (forced) migration, humanitarianism, camps and carceral geographies, police and state violence, and abolitionism in East Africa.