2. Humanitarian exploitation: ethnographies of labor and refugeezation

Convenors :
Simone Di Cecco (Université Paris Cité / URMIS) ; Noemi Martorano (Université Paris Nanterre/IDHE.S; Università degli studi di Padova/FISPPA)

Contacts : esse.dicecco@gmail.com ; noemi.martorano@phd.unipd.it

Humanitarianism depicts some populations and individuals as suffering and vulnerable bodies which have to be governed through emergency measures. As documented by long standing critical studies (Fassin 2015; Malkki 2005; Ticktin 2011), the humanitarian paradigm tends to frame these subjects through the moral lens of exclusion, trauma and dependency, constituting them as powerless and passive. While victimization, paternalism, and depoliticization remain at the core of the humanitarian management of “people in need to help”, new trends are emerging.

  • In the Global South, humanitarian camps’ governance is testing new procedures aimed at promoting refugee activation, autonomy, and self-reliance. In line with “resiliency humanitarianism” theory (Ilcan & Rygiel 2015), refugees are encouraged to become self-governing and responsible for the management of the camp, engaging themselves in (paid or unpaid) activities of “community development” and entrepreneurship.
  • Drawing on the analysis of the “refugeeization of the migrant workforce” in the italian agroindustrial sector (Dines & Rigo 2015), some scholars showed current interconnections between asylum policies, humanitarian governance, and labor exploitation. In this regard, humanitarianism can play a key role in the workforce management and in the relations of production more broadly, producing a specific political economy.
  • Critical research on European migration policies has shown that the opposition between legal incorporation through migrant vulnerability or through migrant civic and economic performance is not always relevant. The “vulnerable migrant” which is governed through asylum policies and humanitarian apparatuses, is today subjected to multiple injunctions about autonomy, self-sufficiency, cultural and economic integration. In this context, paid and unpaid labor (such as volunteering, training programs, etc.) remains an important marker of migrant deservingness, even while deservingness is framed in humanitarian terms (Chauvin & Garcés-Mascareñas 2014).

In this panel, we invite contributions that study empirically the multiplication of labor and the contemporary forms of exploitation in the humanitarian sector. We are looking for contributions that go beyond classical analysis about professional employees of humanitarian organizations, focusing instead on populations and individuals  “put to work” by humanitarian actors and institutions. We welcome contributions based on an ethnographic approach from scholars from different disciplines and from different fieldworks, inside and outside Europe.

How does labor become an element of deservingness in the context of asylum policies and humanitarian governance ? How do asylum policies and humanitarian governance build and sustain the link between labor and deservingness?

How does the asylum system and humanitarian governance lend themselves to feed exploitative dynamics in the labor market?

In the context of the humanitarian environment (e.g. NGOs, Third sector), what are the possible ways in which the users are put to work? Which logics are used and for whose profits?

In the context of anti-trafficking projects, how do humanitarian reasons and work placement articulate themselves when dealing with the category perceived as “the most vulnerable”? How are social and professional reintegration programs conceived and articulate

The fight against passivity is a central theme when it comes to refugees (or other categories taken in by the humanitarian government). How is the injunction to be “active” structured in this context? And which of these activities can fall within the spectrum of labor (paid, unpaid)?

How does the private sector participate in the production of tools and infrastructures for humanitarian aid? How do they fit into the humanitarian supply-chain (Ziadah 2019) and what are their interests? 

How do humanitarianism, racism and exploitation articulate each other? 


Humanitarianism, exploitation, paid and unpaid labor, political economy, migration policies, deservingness

Critical studies of humanitarianism ; labor and exploitation studies ; migration studies ; sociology ; anthropology ; geography

Chauvin, S., & Garcés‐Mascareñas, B. (2014). “Becoming less illegal: Deservingness frames and undocumented migrant incorporation”, in Sociology compass, 8(4), pp.422-432.

Dines, N., & Rigo, E. (2015). “Postcolonial Citizenships and the “Refugeeization” of the Workforce”, in Postcolonial transitions in Europe: Contexts, practices and politics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp.151-172.

Fassin, D. (2015). La Raison humanitaire. Une histoire morale du temps présent: Une histoire morale du temps présent. Média Diffusion.

Ilcan, S., & Rygiel, K. (2015). “‘Resiliency humanitarianism’: responsibilizing refugees through humanitarian emergency governance in the camp”, in International Political Sociology, 9(4), pp.333-351.

Malkki, L. H. (2005). “Speechless emissaries: Refugees, humanitarianism, and dehistoricization”, in Siting culture, Routledge, pp.233-264.

Ticktin, M. I. (2011). “Casualties of care”, in Casualties of Care. University of California Press.

Ziadah R (2019) “Circulating power: Humanitarian logistics, militarism, and the United Arab Emirates”, in Antipode, 51(5), pp.1684–1702.

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