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Survival and predation in the humanitarian economy of Lesvos

Conference contribution
Authors Anja K. Franck
Polly Pallister-Wilkins
Published in International Conference of Critical Geography, 19-23 April 2019, Athens
Publication year 2019
Published at School of Global Studies, Peace and Development Research
Centre for European Research (CERGU)
School of Global Studies
Language en
Keywords borders, humanitarianism, disaster capitalism, neoliberal logics, Lesvos
Subject categories International Migration and Ethnic Relations, Peace and development research, Social and Economic Geography


The arrival of life-seekers on the Aegean island of Lesbos has seen the enactment of a range of interventions that mobilise neoliberal market logics and other practices that we call predatory for ostensibly humanitarian purposes. There has been an increased attention in border studies, political geography and social anthropology on the economies of the border regime in EUrope and beyond. Additionally critical studies of humanitarianism have focused attention on the centrality of capitalism, markets, innovation and entrepreneurialism in the saving of lives both historically and in the contemporary period. However there has been less attention paid to similar logics in the emergence of the ‘humanitarian border’ or ‘humanitarian borderwork’. This paper explores the presence of (neo)liberal market logics, predatory and extractive practices in the provision of humanitarian assistance on Lesbos from 2015-18. Drawing on our sustained on-the-ground engagement with humanitarian assistance in Lesbos over the last three years, we highlight the presence of a number of intersecting processes including: entrepreneurial and innovative humanitarian practices premised on a Silicon-Valleyesque, small-is-beautiful, non-state ideal designed to provide basic needs and expand the (neo)liberal market now and in the future through advances in technology; extractive profit seeking practices that seeks to provide basic needs at a price in the absence of adequate humanitarian provision; and predatory practices that see the life-seeker population on the island as a community that can be harvested both for pure profit and other more social ends such as conversion to evangelical ‘big-money’ Christianity. In all instances the life-seeker population is seen as a marketable and extractable commodity that facilitates the advancement of (neo)liberal forms of order and as bodies capable of generating new forms of capital. We argue that such processes are made possible through the intricate and at times intimate relation between the processes of humanitarianism and the need to consolidate the capitalist (neo)liberal status-quo while highlighting how the presence of such predatory survival practices only highlights existing structural insufficiencies in the provision of human security and the absence of fundamental rights.

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