oat accidents, dehydration and heat stroke, and death by getting lost; shooting deaths by border officials; overflowing migrant detention centers run by corporations; racist vitriol against migrant peoples as major campaign points of politicians; surveillance technologies to track and follow “noncitizens”; land grabs and mass displacement justified by Special Economic Zones: these global phenomena exemplify how bordering and migration policies are the causes of humanitarian crises and the mass death – or letting-die – of people caught between conflict, capitalism and climate disaster. Forced migration, and the ensuing brutalities people face because they have to move, result from nation-state policies in which the border is “a key method of imperial state formation, hierarchical social ordering, labor control, and xenophobic nationalism” (Walia, 2021: 2). Polly Pallister-Wilkins’ book Humanitarian Borders: Unequal Mobility and Saving Lives makes a germinal contribution to this area of study, as it explores how humanitarian actors replicate and bolster border infrastructures and the colonial logics of nation-states. Pallister-Wilkins brings together stories from her own field research and events from the past twenty years with longer historical and interdisciplinary analyses from mobilities frameworks, critical geography, and Black and Indigenous feminist studies. The result is an evocative multiscalar examination of the ways humanitarian response continues to be produced by, and is productive of, colonial and white supremacist logics.

Pallister-Wilkins traces the way the logics of care – and its siblings control and rescue –  manifest in the acts and motivations of humanitarian organizations and individuals. This provokes questions around how performances of care by humanitarian actors hide or support structural violence. The question of how “care” is operationalized by humanitarianism is urgent, because humanitarian actors often proclaim care as a way to avoid the paradox of how they uphold infrastructures and paradigms that cause the crises in the first place. Humanitarian organizations are pedagogical entities that teach publics how to care, and attract people who genuinely want to invoke change in the world; so they are accountable for how that change is happening. Reading Pallister-Wilkins’ observations about care, control and rescue as core manifestations of both humanitarian and bordering practice alongside Black and Indigenous feminist theories, we learn how care is instrumentalized to mask inequity and violence.

Mass death and incarceration at and beyond borders, exploitative economics, hierarchical/racially based citizenship rules, and what Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2015) has termed “organized state abandonment” are all inherited from the transatlantic trade in enslaved peoples (the Middle Passage). We continue to live what Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery” (2007) and Christina Sharpe (2016) terms “the Hold”: the way that “chattel slavery and its afterlives… are unfolding still” (20) as, “containment, regulation, punishment, capture, and captivity and the ways that manifold representations of blackness become the symbol, par excellence, for the less-than-human being condemned to death” (21). While it is not only Black peoples who perish at border crossings, there is a long lineage of state and border infrastructures and surveillance technologies developed through anti-blackness and as control mechanisms for Black movement (Browne, 2015; Walia, 2021). Many Indigenous scholars, including Goenpul theorist Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015) and Seneca theorist Mishuana Goeman (2008) recount how nation-state discourses are defined against notions of Indigenous peoples as uncivilized and in need of control via state courts and the privatization/separation of lands. Therefore, any understanding of migrant justice, and humanitarian aid’s response to migration, must come alongside studies of how the concept of the human as white and civilized, and all others exploitable/murderable, is foundational to Western nation-states. Deliberate neglect of rescue or safe ways to cross at borders is one form of organized state abandonment, but so too is humanitarian aid that focuses on the victimization and objectification of border crossers without contending with how nation-state policies cause migrant deaths and detentions. Proclamations of care and empathy for border crossers, key tools in the campaign materials of humanitarian organizations, bypass the causes of migration in favour of sensationalized, highly visual modes of communication to white/whitened/hyper mobile and privileged publics.

Through her concept of humanitarian borderwork, Pallister-Wilkins examines how infrastructures and surveillance mechanisms at the border (and beyond) are supported by humanitarian groups, even when those groups are pushing back against bordering mechanisms through their work in aiding migrants. Border agents, she notes, also rescue migrants, even as “they simultaneously uphold unequal mobility by enforcing increasingly violent borders that costs lives. Saving lives while taking lives is the perverse logic of global borders today” (10). As they “rescue” people into the incarceration of refugee camps and holding centers, border agents are in effect caring for citizens, saving them from the mythological threat of the migrant. Defining migrants is a way to define citizenship and nation-state belonging, and Pallister-Wilkins observes that humanitarian groups often support the blurred line between care, control and capture, working alongside border police within nation-state norms to rescue and process them. Humanitarian borderwork exhibits the paradoxical relationship between humanitarianism and the nation-state and citizenship. My own work similarly traces this conundrum of the global, multibillion-dollar humanitarian regime: it is dedicated to helping refugees, yet has nationality as philosophical and material fulcrum. Nation-states undermine Indigenous rights and local struggles, and produce refugees, through wars but also extractive capitalism, as people are pushed off their lands by the interests of corporations working in tandem with governments (Toomey, 2022). Today, humanitarian organizations have the responsibility to evaluate whether their support of nation-states as an organizing logic can be ethical, or even effective, as borders become increasingly violent toward those trying to cross them. They need to ask what role they are playing in the “perverse logic.”

In my study of humanitarianism, I also trace how Sylvia Wynter’s (2003) concept of the human as idealized liberal, European, money-earning cisgendered heterosexual able-bodied profit-making property-owning Man (Man2 or homoeconomicus) informs humanitarian and international development practice. Invoking ideals of humanity as tied to advancement, progress, being part of financial markets and property ownership, humanitarian organizations emphasize their ability to bring local people into modernity and development. However, the real effect of global development is local expulsion: the mass destruction of lands and the forced exit of people and nonhuman persons from land and place (Sassen, 2014). Emphasizing care as advancement and progress evades questions about what development actually does to local communities and their lands, avoiding analyses about ecological damage and the wisdom of customary land laws and relations with place. It promotes narrow definitions of humanity as tied to membership within nation-states, and defines nation-statehood through colonial borders. This understanding of development and international relations ignores Indigenous relations with land and place (King, 2018). Narratives of progress by humanitarian groups entrench notions of white/Western superiority for nation-states that ostensibly provide the humanitarian care. So, countries in the Global North can call their governments humanitarian, while they fuel the extractive capitalism and climate catastrophe that forces migration in the Global South.

Pallister-Wilkins’ account of Lesvos in 2015 gut-wrenchingly documents the useless, excessive material donations arriving from across Europe along with middle-class travellers and photojournalists. Tourist/travellers and photojournalists running toward the scene of arriving migrants can be understood as an inheritance of colonial exchange and a form of racial capitalism. Saidiya Hartman (1997) documents how in the antebellum era, white identity was constituted by the witnessing of Black people’s pain, and empathy enacted through action that ultimately centered the (white person’s) self. European tourism was historically based in the objectification of racialized others, through the collection of commodities, photographs, and interactive experiences. Humanitarian organizations capitalize on these histories, acting as tour companies on the ground through voluntourism, and as exporters of empathy experiences as they market the purchase of aid in the Global North. They create and rely on spectacle to invoke empathy, but staying with the spectacle without an interrogation of why people are migrating and assembling at borders becomes vapid titillation. As Pallister-Wilkins shows, what happened in Lesvos is part of a long legacy of humanitarian organizations’ reliance on media narratives of suffering to compel publics to support them. Pallister-Wilkins’ tales of interactions between media, for-profit tour companies and travellers exhibits how care can be fully appropriated into individual experiences and used to avoid political and structural change. While some of the grassroots activism at the scene of the crisis in Lesvos was refugee-driven, politicized and not based in objectification, Pallister-Wilkins documents the constraints those organizations face within a world governed by border violence.

The book ends with a series of important questions about whether humanitarianism might authentically engage in decolonial politics of solidarity. Here we can learn from Sharpe’s “wake work… a method of encountering a past that is not past” (2016: 13). Sharpe tasks us to “reimagine and transform spaces for and practices of an ethics of care (as in repair, maintenance, attention), an ethics of seeing,” and to make accounts that are “counter to the violence of abstraction” (2016: 131). Wake work demands an interrogation not only of how humanitarianism replicates liberal universalism, Eurocentric belief systems and white supremacy. It demands an upheaval of these systems in their entirety. Humanitarians who want to do true solidarity work need to refuse objectification of peoples requiring aid, refuse the nation-state as an organizing logic, and listen and learn deeply from people and systems whose relations with land and place are not governed by capital exchange and exploitation.


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Nisha Toomey is a facilitator, educator, researcher and migrant rights activist who recently earned a PhD in Social Justice Education from the University of Toronto. Her dissertation traces white supremacist and settler colonial logics in the fields of humanitarianism and international development.