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An anthropological perspective on the variations of refugee suffering that sheds light onto the required multiplicity of humanitarian aid

By Ariadni Fischer, Maddie Lablaine, Khadija Mahmood-Sabir, Elizabeth Ryalls, Ella Sinclair, and Annabelle Swift

Anthropologist Micah Trapp (2016) stated that ‘the humanitarian apparatus requires suffering’ (416). Suffering is often used to legitimise humanitarian aid. However, Ticktin (2014) explains how this focus on ‘the suffering subject’ created a universal suffering victim that must be aided as ‘the suffering body’ (276). Anthropologists have claimed that this focus on the suffering body has led to the depolitisation and dehistoricisation of the experiences of victims of suffering, such as refugees (Gilbert, 2016). If focus is only applied to suffering, what of the political and historical reasons for this? For example, Malkki (1996) explains that ‘the suffering body of the refugee held particular importance in… camps because it was seen by humanitarians as providing a more reliable account of experience than a refugee’s stories or words’ (Malkki, 1996 as cited in Ticktin, 2014:276). We will argue that the contextualisation of the types of suffering refugees experience is essential to avoid reducing people to mere ‘suffering bodies’.

In this blog we will demonstrate how, through the contextualisation of suffering, refugees are empowered to assert agency over the ways in which they are perceived and constructed when receiving aid. By using an anthropological approach to studies of humanitarianism, political and historical experiences of refugees are considered and the creation of the ‘apolitical suffering refugee’ or ‘the suffering body’ can be avoided.

In relation to food, good taste can be argued to be a luxury and nourishment a necessity. This implies that for those who are suffering, taste is not a concern. However, it also assumes that those who are suffering are unworthy of taste (Trapp, 2016). Humanitarian intervention is legitimised through the suffering of aid recipients, which means that humanitarian intervention can be argued to require a suffering body (Trapp, 2016). A body, then, that is denied taste. However, as previously stated, the humanitarian focus on ‘the suffering body’ can depoliticise and dehistoricise aid recipients. Trapp (2016) shows that through a lack of emphasis on the taste of food in a refugee camp in Ghana, humanitarian aid providers perpetuate this image of ‘the suffering body’ and simultaneously create the apolitical refugee. Trapp shows how the humanitarian sacralisation of the nutritional value of food strips aid recipients of their non-biological lives.

However, by consciously failing to develop a ‘taste for suffering’ (Trapp, 2016:414), Liberian refugees in the Buduburam camp, Ghana, challenged humanitarian assumptions of the suffering of aid recipients. Through the prioritisation of taste, the Liberian refugees critiqued the humanitarian sacralisation of nutrition and reasserted themselves as social and political actors rather than ‘needy’ subjects. Ultimately, the Liberian refugees’ biographical (political, historical, cultural) lives were emphasised through their own incorporation of (traditionally Liberian ideals of) good taste into the refugee food, which, from the perspective of humanitarian reason, was only needed to sustain biological lives. Therefore, through taste, refugees were able to reassert themselves as autonomous actors rather than passive, needy recipients of aid.

This demonstrates the importance of anthropological studies of humanitarianism. By focusing on the local experiences of refugees, anthropologists are able to accentuate the importance of refugee autonomy in receiving aid. By asserting themselves as ‘tasting subjects’ rather than passive recipients of aid the refugees were able to alleviate, rather than perpetuate, their suffering.

On the other hand, refugees can oftentimes see suffering as a means to legitimise their own status. In the Palestinian refugee camps of Ein el Tal and Neirab in northern Syria, refugees have used the sense of victimhood associated with their suffering in political claims of their right to return to Palestine. Although the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has attempted to develop the camps to improve living conditions, many refugees oppose the measures on the grounds that prolonging the temporariness of the refugee camp’s conditions allows the original moment of rupture to be remembered.

Rations, for example, are seen by the refugees not just as a tool of humanitarian aid but also as a proof of the loss of their homes and thus as proof of their own identity as a refugee (Gabiam, 2012, p. 101). The refugees, who are fighting for their rights to return to Palestine, view the aid that is given in response to their suffering as evidence of international responsibility for their situation – thus inserting their claims into the dehistoricising and depoliticising discourse of international aid (Gabiam, 2012, p. 104). By perpetuating their suffering, the refugees use it as a means to render themselves visible to the international community – it serves as a constant reminder that their situation has yet to be resolved.

As one young refugee declared:

‘Maybe it is better this way, that we are still suffering. Maybe this way we won’t forget Palestine’ (Gabiam, 2012, p. 102).

Through the contextualisation of suffering, humanitarian aid can alleviate, rather than perpetuate, suffering. We showed this by utilising two examples. In Trapp’s (2016) article the humanitarian understanding of suffering is rejected by Liberian refugees to assert a cultural and political identity through the application of good taste into aid food. In contrast, in Gabiam’s (2012) article, suffering is utilised by Palestinian refugees to assert their political identity and demand global recognition. Through an analysis of Trapp and Gabiam’s articles, we wish to demonstrate that there is no universal understanding or performance of suffering. Hence, there cannot be a single humanitarian response to alleviate ‘the suffering body’.

Furthermore, we cannot forget that the diversity of suffering is also met by a diversity of aid practices. For example, an organisation such as Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit that provides legal advice for women and children who are refugees raises an important question: how is the multiplicity of suffering taken into account in a legal scope? Therefore, we argue that the roles of both the refugee and the aid worker are equally important in the delivery of humanitarian relief and asylum processes. Aid must be versatile and adaptable to the circumstances, acknowledging that suffering differs case-by-case, whilst the agency of the refugee is always important for their identities.


Gabiam, N. (2012). When “Humanitarianism” Becomes “Development”: The Politics of International Aid in Syria’s Palestinian Refugee Camps. American Anthropologist, 114(1), pp. 95–107.

Ticktin, M. (2014). Transnational Humanitarianism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43, pp.273-289.

Trapp, M. M. (2016) You-Will-Kill-Me-Beans: Taste and the Politics of Necessity in Humanitarian Aid. Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3: 412–437.

Gilbert, A. C. (2016). From Humanitarianism to Humanitarianization: Intimacy, Estrangement, and International Aid in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina. American Ethnologist. [Online] 43 (4), 717–729.