Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Humanitarian Border, In Place

This post is part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms. The full article, on which this piece is based is free to access.


Paolo Novak
Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Paolo Novak. Paolo is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. His research is concerned with the conceptual and contextual relation between borders, migration and development, and it focuses on the contested geographies produced by such relation as well as on processes of legal and institutional change associated with it. This blog piece and article emerge from the research project is titled “Asylum seekers reception: taxonomies and location” funded by the British Academy (SG162483).

For someone, like me, studying borders from within the critical tradition of Development Studies, the need to produce situated analyses is an instinctive reflex, even prior to it being an epistemological imperative and inclination. Situated analyses are not just about studying borders or development in particular places. Rather, they aim at bringing to the fore the place-specific social forces and relations that explain how development projects or bordering practices emerge and reproduce themselves in concrete settings. They valorise the ‘local’ as a powerful scale of thought and practice against masculinist readings of scale.

This is crucial because if it is true that borders are everywhere. It is even truer that how they are configured and operate, are ignored, transgressed or reinforced, are subjectively and collectively experienced, remains profoundly uneven and place-specific. Situated analyses facilitate capturing this unevenness and differential intensity as they are concerned with explaining borders manifestations, rather than with capturing abstract logics and relations. They explain bordering practices as actual, contextual, and contingent unfolding, rather than offering empirical confirmations of already existing grand theorisations of borders.

The proposition that borders and bordering practices are embedded in and should be studied as part of specific social contexts is relatively straightforward. Yet, as I suggest in a study of the humanitarian border in Italy recently published by the journal Geopolitics, much of the literature on the subject evades the point. This literature is primarily concerned with the dialectic between border controls and migrant mobilities, and, for this reason, it often loses sight of the productive relation between the humanitarian border and the place-specific social forces and dynamics that define its heterogenous manifestations. This productive relation is crucial, I argue in that study, to understand the conditions that allow for humanitarian bordering practices to emerge in their concrete forms and to reproduce themselves. It is constitutive of the humanitarian border and should be treated as such analytically.

The humanitarian border in place

The humanitarian border, a concept first developed by William Walters, is a distinct strategy for the management of border crossings that entangles humanitarian principles and migration policing. This concept has become an influential interpretive lens for capturing the transformations associated with contemporary borders and migration regimes, especially so in the European context where it is deployed to trace the emergent geographies of care and control that dislocate and decentralise seemingly benevolent but violently selective bordering practices.

My study of the humanitarian border in a central Italian province builds upon this literature, but seeks to investigate the concrete ways in which the humanitarian border is re-produced there. Rather than conceiving this province as a territorial unit where the humanitarian border unfolds, I seek to tease out the social forces and dynamics and the localised histories that articulate with it, transforming it as they are being transformed by its force. These forces, dynamics and histories exceed the care and control logic defining the humanitarian border in the first place, and yet they provide the conditions of possibility for its emergence, reproduction and eventual demise. They are constitutive of it.

In place, each of the humanitarian border elements articulates with the stratified social landscape that characterises the province and that enables or restrains initiatives to manage the movement of people across it.

Asylum seekers in Italy
Carceral bedsit for asylum seekers or rural house in an agricultural estate? Photo by Paolo Novak

For example, each of the reception centres hosting asylum seekers is not just a carceral bedsit where migrants are warehoused until their asylum claim is adjudicated upon. Rather, they are situated markers of the social landscape whose social life is deeply connected to the province’s localised history. Some are rural houses once occupied by sharecropper families tilling the land of local aristocratic families. Others are rural schools established during the Kingdom of Italy to cater for the educational needs of agricultural populations. Many are hotels whose failing businesses have been rejuvenated by their transformation into asylum infrastructure.


Asylum seekers in Italy
Humanitarian agent or precarious worker? Photo by Paolo Novak 

Similarly, great attention within humanitarian border literature is devoted to the deflections and struggles performed by humanitarian agents and to the heterogeneous discursive frames that animate their actions. In place, however, these discursive frames need to be set against their heterogeneous social positioning. All those participating in the management of asylum seekers, in fact, are not just “humanitarian agents”, but rather part of the social fabric of the Macerata province. They are societal agents whose relationships among them, and between them, state and market become entangled with the humanitarian border. Some are deeply connected to dominant political parties or to local elites. Others are former migrants devoted to their communities. Many are young professionals, Italian teachers, project managers, who seek to reconcile, through their precarious forms of employment, a humanitarian ethos with the material need for wages.

Asylum seekers in Italy
Fugitive subjects escaping the border or local residents? Photo by Paolo Novak 

Asylum seekers in the province, finally, are not just fugitive subjects escaping the border. Much like everyone else around them, albeit of course in a much more precarious and subordinate position, they seek employment and work, consume food, rest on public benches, wait for hours the famously erratic public transport, go to church on Sundays. They too are part of the social fabric of this province.

Beyond circular border epistemologies

Etienne Balibar suggests that the act of tracing any border revolves around the definition of identities, their differentiation and separation from other possible ones. Tracing a border and defining identities, he continues, requires a reduction of complexity, the application of a simplifying force. In an attempt to avoid this process of simplification, the study of the humanitarian border I perform in the article referenced by this blog seeks to unravel the various identities, forces and relations that constitute the humanitarian border in a central Italian province. It moves beyond an exclusive concern with the border-migrant dialectic by situating their dynamic relation across local social forces and dynamics.

Lest we conceive the relation between border controls and migrants’ subjectivities as a dialectic that is avulse from the social contexts in which it takes place -lest we conceive it, in other words, as unfolding on an ontological plane of its own- it is crucial to reorient studies of the humanitarian border towards an appreciation of the latter’s place-specific configurations.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

P. . (2022) The Humanitarian Border, In Place. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/10/humanitarian-border-place. Accessed on: 14/04/2024

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