Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Everyday Violence in Informal Camps: Distributing Materials Using the Queue



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Victoria Tecca. Victoria is a PhD candidate in anthropology at University College London (UCL). Her research examines the intersections of violence and affect in a makeshift tent settlement built by undocumented Kurdish migrants on the northern French coast. She is particularly interested in questions surrounding border deaths, processes of illegalisation, and everyday expressions of power. Her research will be made available in 2022, upon the online publication of her doctoral thesis in UCL’s repository. This is the fourth post in Border Criminologies themed series on'Everyday Violence and Resistance in Europe’s ‘Migration Management’ During the Covid-19 Pandemic', organised by Marta Welander and Dr Susanne Jaspars. 

It is well-documented that increasing border securitisation and restrictive immigration policies have resulted in the proliferation of makeshift migrant tent settlements across Europe’s borderzones. Many of them are frequented by (largely) European aid workers and volunteers who distribute material goods such as tents, sleeping bags, clothing, hygiene items, and food. This post examines one of the most common means by which these items are distributed – the queue – and identifies it as a key mechanism for the reproduction of asymmetries of power within the camp.

Queueing in Dankix

Dankix residents charge their phones us…s behind them queue for food (Photo by Victoria Tecca)


One such tent settlement, along the France-UK border, is referred to by the majority of its Kurdish residents as ‘Dankix’ (a phonetic adaptation of the French pronunciation of ‘Dunkirk’). It is continuously destroyed by police evictions ordered by the state and, in turn, rebuilt in makeshift form. As such, Dankix has existed in countless iterations since its original inception in 2006 but is usually a collection of hundreds of tents in and around a nature reserve called Le Puythouck. The data that informs this post was derived from eighteen months of fieldwork in Dankix in 2018 and 2019.

Much of everyday life in Dankix is shaped by queueing. Residents must wait in queues at least twice per day for food, and many more times if they need other items. There are queues for medicine, to see the doctor, for soap, and for a single disposable razor. Aid workers and volunteers do not begin distributions until residents have formed an ‘orderly’ (single-file) queue behind their vans. They then open the van doors and distribute items one-by-one. Queuers are ejected from the queue if they are perceived to be aggressive, if they leave and return, or if they attempt to touch the van’s rear doors. Often, stock runs out while hundreds are still waiting in line. Sometimes, those distributing arrive late, come at an unexpected time, day, or location, or do not show up at all.

Subjection to waiting has long been conceptualised as a mechanism of control. Welfare service users wait, sometimes for hours per day, for the funds that ensure their survival. Asylum-seekers wait for months or years for a decision on their claim. Immigrants in detention wait for indefinite periods to be released or deported. Building from these studies, the queue can be seen as both an expression of, and a way of experiencing, power.


Dankix (Photo by: Victoria Tecca)

Drawing from his experience of detention in Manus Prison, Behrouz Boochani considers the queue to be a “domesticating process” whereby hungry or otherwise deprived people are controlled by an imposed logic. In other words, queuers’ time and behaviour are regulated through a system of reward (receiving an item they need) and punishment (expulsion from the queue, or the complete withdrawal of aid).

Aryos, a research participant in Dankix, laughed whenever the aid organisation distributing food arrived in their white van. As he watched people run after the van and form the beginning of the queue, he joked with his friends, “The animal feed has arrived!” referring to both the quality of the food and the behaviour of those running. And yet, those who made it to the front of the queue always ate before the food ran out. Aryos, who refused to join the queue, put his decision this way: “I’d rather go hungry than eat like chickens on a farm.” Aryos’ words echo those of several other participants. Another participant, Keywan, stated: “The queue might look calm, but it doesn’t make me feel calm. It’s undignified for me, but I have to pretend that I’m calm.” Keywan’s words reflect the notion that material goods are traded for compliance, patience, and passivity.

Additionally, despite the best efforts and planning of those distributing, the queue often fails. Organisations run out of stock and those at the back of the queue receive nothing, or organisations distribute at a new time and place, of which residents have been made aware only through messages written in English.

Blame deflection

Residents' belongings are confiscated and destroyed during an eviction (Photo by Victoria Tecca)

When the queue fails, aid workers often deflect blame upwards to faceless stock managers and donors (“We haven’t received a donation in weeks, I don’t know why” or “I know as much as you, I got here last week”) or downwards towards those to whom they distribute (“There are hundreds of you, we don’t have enough stock” or “We communicated the location change to you, you should’ve found someone who reads English”). Many research participants also deflected blame, but did so laterally, towards themselves and other residents: “It’s our fault, some people take more than they need” or “Some people are greedy and cut in the queue.”

Failures are, then, most often attributed to residents themselves. They are constructed, through blame deflection, as a problem that aid workers are struggling to solve. As one aid worker told me, “This is the best we can do in these circumstances. There are what, 1200 guys in Dunkirk now?” For many aid workers, therefore, the queue is perceived as an inevitable mechanism of distributing to several hundreds of men.

Aid workers who employ the queue are often critical of those who do not. As one aid worker and I watched a group of volunteers haphazardly throw pairs of shoes out to a crowd of at least 100 men he murmured to me, “This is disgusting. This turns people into animals.” And yet, as Aryos jokes above, so does the orderly queue for dinner distribution.

The responses included above are indicative of what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as ‘symbolic violence’ or that which normalises asymmetries of power. As Boochani argues, the queue ‘domesticates’ those upon whom a wait has been imposed; it demands compliance. It both evidences and is reproductive of the relations of power already framing the encounter between one in need of a resource and another with access to that resource.


Remnants of belongings left after an eviction (Photo by Victoria Tecca)

The everyday violence of the queue – whereby the hierarchies of power positioning aid workers and camp residents in relation to one another are concretised – has been examined extensively in other settings (see, for instance, work by Lasse Hansen and Barry Schwartz). Despite the ubiquity of queues in migrant settlements in Europe, however, comparisons of these contexts have seldom been made. Yet, the scarcity of material goods, itself manufactured by repeated police evictions and the destruction of migrants’ belongings, means that such queues are a central part of everyday life in informal camps.

Distributions are, of course, not designed with the intent to harm. Most aid workers with whom I lived and worked were self-reflexive and aware of the issues outlined here. Many worked tirelessly to design distribution systems that limited the forms of violence inherent to the queue through, for example, tailored support or the use of ‘free shops.’ Indeed, aid workers and volunteers sometimes decide to ban the queue as a distribution system altogether (see, for instance, work by Marta Welander). Yet, structural forms of violence are identifiable as such because no one person or institution seems to be the perpetrator. The violence outlined here is instead enabled by the very structures of power situating migrants and aid workers in relation to one another. The queue is often posited as the easiest form of mass distribution. This ease, however, exists in part because the queue does not challenge these structures of power. Instead, it reproduces them.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Tecca, V. (2022) Everyday Violence in Informal Camps: Distributing Materials Using the Queue. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/02/everyday-0 [date]

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