English Tiededebatti

Humanitarian border – arena of political struggle

Lukuaika: 10 min.

This text is a part of multilingual Humanitarian border article series. It is based on recently published peer-reviewed articles that can be found here ja here.

Debates on asylum seeking and refugees tend to polarize into two extremes. Those critical of migration talk about borders and security, while the supporters of humanitarian responsibility underline refugees’ right to international protection. In Europe the debates intensified in 2015 when a large number of people arrived in the European Union to seek asylum.

At the end of 2021, tensioned situation at the borders of Poland and Lithuania with Belarus brought the securitization of EU’s external borders on the agenda. The hard border management practiced there has previously been witnessed at the Greece-Turkey border.

Humanitarian aid and migration governance are typically framed as two opposite strategies. Yet in reality both are formed in relation to each other. Forced international migration stems from human distress. People flee dangerous and unlivable circumstances to countries where they hope to build safer lives.

States have the right to govern human mobility and residence as part of their sovereignty, which enables them to use passport and visa regimes to sort between desired and unwanted mobility. For this reason, many refugees do not find legal access to the EU. These two worlds are connected by the United Nations Refugee Convention that now celebrates its 70th anniversary. It compels the State parties to admit persons seeking asylum to their territory.

Humanitarian border

In international scholarship, encounters between asylum seekers and states are approached through the concept of humanitarian border. It has been developed in multidisciplinary research on forced migration and its governance in different parts of the world.

The approach is practical: researchers analyze what happens in places where asylum seekers meet migration governance.

Geographical research focuses particularly on the spaces that humanitarian bordering creates. Not only a divider between different areas, humanitarian border is also a constantly changing in-between space that links them. The multi-scalar encounters between asylum seekers and governance produce both physical lived space and symbolic and practical spaces of political struggle.

Humanitarian border is a diffuse spatial formation. It can reside at manifold refugee camps characterized by temporary nature. Photo: Levi Meir Clancy/Unsplash

Life at the humanitarian border

Humanitarian border is a diffuse spatial formation. On one hand, it resides at the manifold refugee camps. As a crisis hits, temporary camps are established close to conflict or disaster areas, within the country or in the neighboring countries.

Humanitarian aid relies on actors who can get to these places quickly, typically local organizations and international crisis actors. Shelters are built from materials that are available, food is shared and prepared outdoors, and sanitation and hygiene are often poor.

The oldest refugee camps date back to 1948. Several generations of Palestinians have lived in them in Jordan, Libanon, Syria, and Israel.

In protracted situations camps become more robust with stronger housing structures, sanitation facilities and kitchens. A semi-formal labor market may emerge, and education, health care and other basic services are made available to refugees. These are typically co-organized by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the state, municipalities, and NGOs. Settled camps may also be relocated or divided for practical reasons.

Humanitarian border thus becomes an enduring lived space. Large-scale camps akin to urban neighborhoods can be found in Kenia, Uganda, and Jordan for instance. Similarly, in Asia there are refugee camps hosting hundreds of thousands of people, as in Bangladesh with Rohingya refugees. The oldest refugee camps date back to 1948. Several generations of Palestinians have lived in them Jordan, Libanon, Syria, and Israel.

An aerial view of Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan. The camp was established as a temporary shelter for Syrian refugees in 2012. Now it has transformed into a city and a permanent home for many of its residents. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Europe’s humanitarian borders?

In EU countries, asylum seekers are mainly placed in different kinds of reception, processing, and detention centers. There are also refugees living in private apartments and self-made camps within and outside cities, either as registered asylum seekers or as paperless migrants.

In 2016, the European Union established emergency camps called Hotspots, in Greece and Italy. They are becoming a permanent element in the EU’s new refugee policy. Some inoperable camps are presently being replaced by new closed control centers at the Greek islands.

Big cities host refugees all over the world. For example, in Egypt over 265.000 registered asylum seekers live in the cities, in addition to numerous refugees without such status. The UNHCR lacks capacities to help or relocate them. Many people seek other channels for their journeys, some aiming to seek asylum in the EU. This often means resorting to smugglers for assistance.

The humanitarian border is lived also at border regions where asylum seekers gather. Sometimes people settle temporarily in makeshift camps – such as in Calais in France – but many are constantly on the move seeking to cross the border. Some asylum seekers succeed right away, others end up trying many times, and some lose their lives during the dangerous border crossing.

Deserted refugee camp in Calais, France in 2018. Photo: Radek Homola/ Unsplash

Struggle over the right to asylum

In research, the politics of humanitarian border can be traced though document and media analysis, and by studying the practices of migration governance. It is a political space constituted by struggles over inclusion and exclusion. Public attention to such protracted struggles can either decrease or increase its political weight.

Inclusive bordering is about the realization of the international right to asylum. Refugees have the right to seek asylum in countries committed to the UN Convention, while states have the right to define when the criteria for refugee status are met. EU countries interpret these criteria both independently and collectively.

Refugees’ access to asylum is markedly varied. Their countries of origin may be considered ‘safe’, which leads to a high degree of rejected applications. People also have varying access to supportive networks, and some lack capabilities to bring up matters regarded critical for the refugee status.

To seek asylum, one needs to enter the territory of the target country. Often this is not possible through official border crossing points. In border guarding, this has grown into a controversial issue. For example, the reception centers now constructed on the Greek islands have been described as prison-like detention centers.

The primary aim of EU’s new refugee policy, The New Pact on Migration and Asylum, is the acceleration of asylum case assessment. The goal is to return a growing number of refugees directly from the external border. This will remarkably narrow down the political space of the humanitarian border.

Limits of illegality?

Exclusive bordering concerns territorial governance. States have the right to determine the grounds on which people may enter their territory and stay at the country. However, this sovereignty is conditioned by international treaties concerning mobility and human rights.

For example, member states of the UN Refugee Convention have agreed that persons may enter the country if they register as asylum seekers. Hence, asylum seekers cannot be treated as illegal migrants.

Humanitarian border is a paradoxical space. It constitutes at the external borders of states and the EU, but equally wherever asylum seekers’ residency rights are assessed.

Yet at many EU borders, countries are currently performing so called push-backs, which means coercive measures to prevent asylum seekers from entering the national territory. This is considered a questionable bordering practice as it contradicts with international treaties. Through push-backs, justified by illegal migration, states narrow down the political space of the humanitarian border.

Conversely, many activists and organizations seek to broaden the space of political struggle by making visible the illegality of the states’ actions. Asylum seekers themselves have little access to these struggles, even if some protests exist. Refugees encounter migration governance from their embodied vulnerable positions – at the lived humanitarian border.

Piraeus port in Greece has been a hub of the massive migration movements since 2015. People fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere arrive to the port in order to reach Western Europe. In the photo, a ferry is arriving to Piraeus in 2016. Photo: Aila Spathopoulou

Paradoxical space

Humanitarian border is a paradoxical space. It constitutes at the external borders of states and the EU, but equally wherever asylum seekers’ residency rights are assessed. In the digitalized society the border may close down abruptly when a person attempts to access private or public services that request strong identification.

It is also a traveling construct. The hotspot model was imported to Europe from the Australian Pacific and the US government is replicating it at the Mexican border. While the hardening border thus expands and solidifies, the spaces of asylum and protection shrink and weaken.

Humanitarian border binds together the apparently disparate aims of border guarding and humanitarian aid. In the EU, asylum seekers usually receive immediate and urgent support regardless of their background and country of origin. But only a fraction of them are offered long-term asylum.

The growing emphasis on bordering over humanitarian aid means that asylum seekers are not necessarily offered even immediate help. At the Belarus-Poland and Greece-Turkey borders they are simply being cast out from the EU.

As a paradoxical space the humanitarian border is open to political struggle. European refugee policy involves constant balancing between national interests and international responsibility, border security and human despair, state sovereignty and human rights. The exploration of these tensioned relations helps understanding the complex phenomenon and finding basis for more sustainable solutions.




Kallio, K.P., Häkli, J. & Pascucci, E. (2019). Refugeeness as political subjectivity: Experiencing the humanitarian border. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 37:7, 1258–1276.

Spathopoulou, A., Kallio, K. P. & Häkli, J. (2021). Outsourcing Hotspot governance within the EU: cultural mediators as humanitarian–border workers in Greece. International Political Sociology, 15:3, 359–377.

Kirsipauliina Kallio

Kirsi Pauliina Kallio is professor of Environmental Pedagogy at Tampere University. Her critical research on the humanitarian border focuses on the governance of forced migration in the EU and on forced migrants’ experiences of seeking asylum in EU countries.

Jouni Häkli

Jouni Häkli is professor of Regional Studies at Tampere University. His recent research addresses refugeeness and encounters between asylum seekers and migration management.

Elisa Pascucci

Elisa Pascucci is a senior researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her current research focuses on the geographies of humanitarianism, with particular attention to humanitarian infrastructures and logistics. She is about to start a project on the politics of administrative and funding tools in development and refugee aid, funded by the KONE Foundation and based at the School of Management and SPARG, Tampere Universities.

Aila Spathopoulou

Aila Spathopoulou is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geography at Durham University. She is co-coordinator of the Research Area: Mobility: Migration and Borders at the Feminist Autonomous Centre for research in Athens. Aila completed her PhD in human geography, focusing on processes of bordering and governmentality of migrants through the hotspot system in Greece.

Donna Swarthout

Donna Swarthout holds an M.A. in political science from the University of California Berkeley. She is the author of numerous publications about the legacy of the Holocaust and is the editor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany (Berlinica 2019).

Tipping the balance towards a more ethical and humane approach

How should states balance their obligation to provide a safe haven for refugees with their sovereign right to control their own borders? This question underlies the political struggle over the humanitarian border.

Implementing a fair and effective process for granting refuge to asylum seekers is a necessary component of a humanitarian approach. Yet states have not always demonstrated a full commitment to such an approach, as seen during the 2015 refugee crisis.

A major restructuring and budgetary boost for the United Nations Refugee Agency seems unlikely. So what steps can be taken to achieve more humanitarian outcomes when violent conflicts cause new waves of population movements?

Recent refugee and migration crises have revealed key weaknesses in the current system. Reforms are needed to ensure stronger international leadership and coordination, a heavier emphasis on equity and fairness in decision making processes, and a broader global distribution of responsibilities for the welfare of asylum seekers.

In September 2020 the European Commission proposed a New Pact on Migration and Asylum to implement a set of comprehensive and long-term reforms. One year later, the International Rescue Committee reported that “progress has still not been reached on vital issues, such as the establishment of a fair system for EU states to share responsibility for new arrivals at EU borders.”

Others have observed that there has not been sufficient movement away from the “Dublin system” and its allocation of responsibility to the country of first entry into the EU.

Ukrainians who have fled their war-torn country have been welcomed to the EU with generous benefits. At the same time, thousands of Afghans remain in temporary situations where they await resettlement.

Responsibility sharing remains an issue for resettlement of asylum seekers both within and outside the EU. On the one hand, we see Ukrainians who have fled their war-torn country being welcomed to the EU with generous benefits such as the right to stay and work for up to three years.

At the same time, thousands of Afghans remain displaced or in temporary situations where they await resettlement; not to mention the millions of refugees from Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere who are languishing in refugee camps.

A fair system does not necessarily mean that Europe must open its borders to all asylum seekers. As some experts have argued, wealthy countries can meet their duty of rescue by allocating resources towards safe havens that are in close proximity to the countries from which refugees originate.

There may be social, economic and cultural benefits from doing so. The humanitarian border as an ethical construct need not be in conflict with the pursuit of cost-effective approaches to refugee policy.

But European states do have an obligation to process the thousands of pending asylum cases and to provide ongoing humanitarian support. Refugees both within and outside Europe’s borders also need support to regain their independence.

Although some reforms have been implemented, increased cohesion and commitment from EU member states is needed to avoid push-backs, the use of prison-like detention centers, and other unethical border practices.

Internal political dynamics in Western democracies play a key role in determining how political struggles over the humanitarian border are resolved. Poor crisis management in 2015 and the resulting popular discontent were factors that caused Brexit and a weakened European Union.

Citizens must do their part – through the electoral process and advocacy campaigns – to prevent far right and extreme nationalist elements from gaining the upper hand and eroding democratic institutions. These internal dynamics will determine how well liberal democracies manage the external pressures posed by asylum seekers.

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