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(2019-2020) How do anthropological studies on the role of compassion, crisis and kinship in humanitarian work help us to understand the Red Cross family tracing service as a form of governance?

by | Dec 6, 2019 |

By Alicia Blain, Helen Davis, Alice Harriet Foster, Grace Greenlaw, Peter Kane, Aliyah Kossoff, and Sylvie Pope

Anthropology helps us understand how family tracing in the Red Cross, a non-governmental organisation, might in fact be intrinsically political. With the current political climate in the UK, particularly with Brexit, we look at the difficulties the Red Cross could encounter when it must remain politically neutral in the process of family tracing. Firstly, we will analyse negotiations of a moral economy that dictates how the Red Cross might need to prioritise beneficiaries of family tracing based on notions of deservedness. Secondly, we will consider how notions of the ‘family’ used in family tracing may reinforce normative kinship structures. We are curious about what kind of support exists for those who cannot claim ties to a recognisably traditional family. Finally, we will consider how Red Cross family tracing is tied to global structures of humanitarian governmentality, implicated by a ‘crisis’ discourse and constituted by politically paradoxical power dynamics.

In Britain there is a mixture of sympathy and hostility towards asylum seekers, which creates a complex socio-political context for the tracing service to navigate. As the House of Lords European Union Committee (2019, pp. 3-5) notes, the service could be changed by the outcome of Brexit. The report suggests a ‘no deal’ scenario could put tracing services in limbo. Since the NGO supports refugees in adversity, it often means opposing anti-immigrant politics and the culture of disbelief among immigration authorities. In this setting, it is difficult to carry out family tracing in a neutral, depoliticized manner. 

The Home Office report outlines the stages of the tracing process (, 2016). The process evaluates whether family tracing is appropriate for the child, considering their desires, trauma, understanding of the situation, risk of abuse and emotional maturity. Anthropology helps us understand this as a form of moral governance, and ‘is anything but indifferent: it is full of passion and norms, of feelings and stereotypes’ (Fassin, 2005, p. 366). If this ‘moral economy’ (Fassin, 2005, p.382) is shaping Home Office procedures, how are the Red Cross reflexive about the role of morality in their own services? In family tracing, is there necessarily a logic about who is in the greatest need of aid and who is deserving of compassion?

The construction of ‘the family’ as a natural societal unit influences the family tracing aspect of the asylum process: protecting, complicating and depoliticising it (Tapaninen, 2010). However, ‘the concept of family cannot be divorced from kinship’ (Tapaninen, 2010, p. 53). This means that kinship can be a way to analyse social and power structures. ‘Family’ can be used by governments, with increasingly repressive asylum-seeking legislation, and by refugees searching for the family member who is perceived to have the strongest asylum case (Bedsoe, 2008). This reflects growing concerns within reception countries that family ties are increasingly utilised as tools to obtain residency. Thus, the category of family becomes distorted and a site of power. Bedsoe notes that the instrumental use of ‘family’, which requires government scrutiny, signifies the unintended consequences of family tracing; ‘the same measures that were designed to bring families together can divide them’ (2008, p. 3). The State can enforce stricter age requirements on family tracing when politics requires, for example, limiting asylum and undermining the right of family. The ‘family’ becomes a site of imbalanced power relations, despite having protection from the Human Rights Act (Equality and Human Rights Commission); it is a highly contentious political area. 

If family tracing is inherently political, we need to ask how the Red Cross can remain politically neutral when carrying out this service. Pandolfi’s conceptualisation of NGO sovereignty and global governance (2003, p. 371) can help us better understand the nature of the Red Cross family tracing service. Pandolfi (2003) labels transnational networks of humanitarian power and knowledge as ‘mobile sovereignties’, equivalent to local forms of power. Yet these are deterritorialized, united by human rights discourse and legitimised by ‘crisis’ intervention. 

One way that forms of power enter humanitarian action is through the potential connection of refugees to bare life. ‘Bare life’ signifies the reduction of refugees and immigrants to their biology, emotional state or trauma, rather than citizenship or fuller political and social identity. This stripping down to basic humanity is still political; refugees are systematically essentialized as victims with limited agency. If that is the problem of humanitarian governmentality, does the work done by the Red Cross in their family tracing services in fact challenge this reduction of their existence to pure biology by listening to the life histories of asylum seekers and recognising them as deserving of having their families traced? Or does the British Red Cross’ negotiation of priority, crisis, compassion and pity constitute a form of humanitarian sovereignty?  

These questions do not aim to delegitimize the role of British Red Cross workers, who want to make a difference to their service users’ lives. Rather, it addresses the paradox of political power dynamics present within humanitarianism. The governmentality of family tracing is underpinned by hierarchies of compassion, the politics of kinship, and familial intervention legitimised by political and personal ‘crisis’. Ultimately, we must question whether overlooking the politics of these processes affects family tracing service users. Is it realistic to expect humanitarian organisations to act completely independently from the political climate they are embedded in? The Red Cross’s aims of political neutrality are potentially difficult to maintain in the highly politicised UK climate.  Despite this, we acknowledge the work of The Red Cross family tracing service as an incredibly important endeavour.

Bibliography (2016). Family tracing: Guidance on regulation 6 of the Asylum Seekers (Reception Conditions) Regulations 2005. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].

Bedose, C and Sow, P. Family Reunification Ideals and the Practice of Transnational Reproductive Life among Africans in Europe (2008). Working paper. pp. 1-14

House of Lords European Union Committee (2019). Brexit: refugee protection and asylum policy. The Authority of the House of Lords, pp. 3-5, 51-65, 93-101.

Pandolfi, M. (2003). ‘Contract of Mutual (In)Difference: Governance and the Humanitarian Apparatus in Contemporary Albania and Kosovo’. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 10(1), pp. 369-381.

Fassin, D. (2005). ‘Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France.’ Cultural Anthropology, 20(3), pp. 362-387. 

Tapaninen, A. M (2010). ‘Complications in family reunification’, Suomen Antropologi, 35(4), pp. 53-55