On Humanitarian Tutelage
By Leonardo Schiocchet
Most refugees in the world come from the Middle East and Central Eurasia, and most forced migrants in Europe also come from this region. The so-called Summer of Refuge (or Summer of Migration) in 2015, when unprecedented numbers of forced migrants applied for asylum in Europe, made this fact apparent from Portugal to the Balkan Peninsula.
A recent book publication, From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna (2017), edited by Josef Kohlbacher and me, has been devoted to presenting and analyzing experiences of refugees from these regions in their country of origin, on their flight and after their arrival in Austria. This blog post inaugurates a series dedicated to showcasing this book featuring results, analyses and interpretations of a pilot study conducted by ROR-n. The edited volume contributes with in-depth qualitative data on forced migration from the Middle East and Central Eurasia to Europe, by means of discussing how Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees reached Austria and relate to this regional and urban context. Overall, this edited volume offers intimate stories on the disrupted lives of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans both prior to deadly conflicts in the region and in exile. It also presents interpretations of sets of in-depth interviews, contributing to several topics in migration and forced migration studies. Research presented in this volume focuses on the unique moment of the first experiences of these refugees in Austria, which is essential to understanding the development of the interaction between refugee and host over time. This fresh outlook from the point of view of displaced persons is also in tune with established and contemporary scholarship on memory and agency. Besides, Europe is in dire need of a reexamination of attitudes towards forced migration, and Austria is no exception. Thus, the importance of this timely contribution can hardly be overstated.
Even though each of the chapters in this book contributes to different topics, one topic in particular cuts across all contributions: integration. But what is integration? What are its conditions of possibility? How is it mobilized as discourse and practice? And, what does it leave out of the picture, if anything? These are some of the most pressing questions posed by the Summer of Refuge. As the reader will see in the other posts of this series, each chapter addresses integration, or rather, what I prefer to call “the encounter”, between refugees and their hosts by exploring different aspects, nuances, and diverse transdisciplinary competences.
Besides, all chapters in one way or another engage with the principles of humanitarian intervention and the power relations they convey, what we understand as human, humanity and humane, and how we organize society around it. As I argue throughout my introductory chapter summarized here (Schiocchet 2017), the relationship between the two can be in fact surprisingly contradictory, and the concept of “tutelage” lays bare relations of power constitutive of this social situation.
I use the term “encounter” to challenge assumptions entailed by the term integration in a similar way that Lieba Fair and Lisa Rofel engage with the term:
“These ethnographies explore how culture-making occurs through unequal relationships involving two or more groups of people and things that appear to exist in culturally distinct worlds. The term encounter refers to everyday engagements across difference. Ethnographies of encounter focus on the cross-cultural and relational dynamics of these processes” (2014: 363).
Yet, my discussion emphasizes instead the meeting between migrants, forced or otherwise, and their hosts. My point is not to discredit the importance of the concept of integration in general, only to suggest that encounter is more suitable as an academic tool to investigate how different worldviews influence each other upon contact, which in turn does not take for granted the normative imperative of fitting one term to the standards of the other. While integration remains an important policy tool, academics should first investigate the encounter at large and only then seek answers to integrating policies. This more holistic standpoint, in turn, gears the discussion on the topic toward what Noel Salazar and Alan Smart called (im)mobility (2011). As I develop elsewhere, refugees – obliged to cross borders rather than stay at their places of origin, living in overcrowded shelters, and serving as easy prey for war machines surrounding them – often do not feel mobile but immobile even when jumping country-to-country and continent-to-continent.
In part because most refugees feel obliged to abandon their homes to live under another country’s rule as a non-citizen, I contend that the refugee voices heard in the study suggest that the encounter between refugees and Austria and Austrians is best understood through the lens of tutelage. The concept of tutelage, in turn, has been only rarely applied to the anthropological understanding of refugees, and more often to the study of indigenous minorities or international legal regimes over given territories and their populations.
The concept of tutelage lays bare relations of power constitutive of the humanitarian intervention. It is what the works of Michel Foucault (1980) and Liisa Malkki (1985, 1995, 1996) combined would call a technology of biopower, meaning disciplinary practices determining power relations over life, through which power is exerted asymmetrically across the system of forces at play. Tutelary regimes legitimize the dependency of protectorates, children, indigenous groups, national minorities, refugees, and other subjects perceived as not apt for deciding for themselves. In denying agency and full political participation and autonomy, tutelage objectifies and depoliticizes.
Humanitarianism has its own vernacular politics, which is mobilized not only by the United Nations refugee agency, but also by NGOs, nation-states, the media, and the refugees themselves. Anthropologists working on refugees or on humanitarianism, such as Michel Agier (2012, 2008), Ilana Feldman (2010), and Didier Fassin (2013, 2012) have already pointed to the structure of the humanitarian discourse and apparatus. The principles and mechanisms of humanitarian aid depend on accepting nation state sovereignty above all. This, in turn, means that international treaties and “laws” relating to refugees, such as the Geneva Convention and its protocols, not only depend on each state’s own agreement and interpretation, but are also contextually subject to nation-state rule in practice. That is, the application of such principles is left to each state’s own devices. Institutions such as the United Nations can only suggest resolutions on how to treat refugees, but not enforce them in practice. Accountability and enforcement mechanisms are usually limited to international sanctions, when these are actually put into practice. The decision always lies with the General Assembly, which is in itself composed of UN member states, voting according to their own interests. Humanitarian intervention is thus complementary to nation-state sovereignty, rather than an opposite force. As refugees by definition do not fit into any nation-state, they need to be governed by a force external to the nation-state order of the world that, in doing so, reinforces nation-state sovereignty. Tutelage, thus, embodies the power relations at play between refugees on one side and the national-humanitarian order of the world on the other one.
At the base of the nexus between national sovereignty and international humanitarian intervention lies the main principle that humanitarianism should be apolitical. While this principle is most often naturalized as being beyond criticism, it has its limitations. Most importantly, most refugees perceive that the solution for their situation is not simply bed and board or to be taken (or not) to one or another country. The solution, for most, is inherently political. Most Palestinian and Kurdish refugees, for example, want their own country, rather than only food and lodging. As forced migrants, refugees were obliged to leave their countries of origin or else suffer persecution and violence. On the one hand, by treating refugees as mere objects of humanitarian policy, their claims are understood in principle as apolitical. On the other hand, however, refugees are treated by host nation states as a political problem, rather than as humans just like any other citizen. In the national-humanitarian order of the world, thus, refugees are apolitical when they want to be political, and political when they want to be taken as equal to other humans. This tension tends to frame the experience of refugeeness greatly, and has yet to be widely acknowledged by policymakers, humanitarian agents, and scholars alike.
I suggest that humanitarianism is a project entailing the creation of a humanity beyond politics that could never be fully turned into reality, as it is curbed by the whims of nation-states. Such a project cannot exist but within the relative and contextual space given to it by particular nation-state sovereignties. The result is a general policy of tutelage that conceals political contextualization and with it the aspirations and lives of the refugees themselves. This, in turn, goes against Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that Human rights should be above all political (see, for example, Arendt 1976: 296-297). Supposedly beyond politics, humanitarianism has often been considered beyond criticism too, and thus needs to be taken in scholarly perspective and understood as an ideology in Louis Dumont’s sense (1980, 1986) – that is, not opposed to truth, but as one truth regime among others.
Nonetheless, my remarks must not be read as effacing the notable improvement humanitarian intervention has ensured for the lives of refugees. It is imperative to keep in mind that the critique of the Humanitarian intervention I present here is academic, only meant to lay bare its mechanisms to diagnose the social situation analyzed. It is also not meant as a critique of Europe or Austria specifically, but of global humanitarian reason and intervention at large.
Only through comprehensive understanding of the socio-political processes at play can we move forward, overcome ideological and policy limitations, and ultimately contribute to the betterment of the refugee situation world-wide. Thus, my aim here was to show that no matter how outstanding this assistance is, it is only palliative to enduring political solutions. To be more precise, my chapter suggests that it is the tutelary character of humanitarian intervention, legitimized as apolitical, which must be rethought and substituted by a more comprehensive, context-aware, practice; a practice that would take refugees as subjects of their own destinies, and assume the inherently political character of refuge situations, refugee subjects, and humanitarian practice itself.
From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna is available for purchase here
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Leonardo Schiocchet has a PhD in anthropology (Boston University, 2011), is a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences Institute for Social Anthropology, and a member of ROR-n. His work has focused on the Anthropology of the Middle East, with particular attention to processes of social belonging and subjecthood among Arab refugees in the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe. Many of his writings are available at