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(2021-2022) Bare Life in relation to child refugees

by | Nov 26, 2021 |

Written by Ellen Ambris, Jack Daly, Kandre Hassan, Meg Pitchford, Maya Lukic, and Bella Rushi. 


  • Paper
  • Scissors
  • Interactive whiteboard
  • Multimedia- video (youtube)
  • Mini whiteboards
  • Whiteboard pens

Basic Requirements

  • Class size of twenty-five to thirty students
  • Use of small group work of approximately six groups of five

Aim for teachers

We aim to provide an understanding of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s theory of bare life, which is when life has been reduced to its biological elements, as applied to children living in refugee camps. In doing so, we hope to illustrate through the lens of childhood a more in depth and three dimensional account of the processes that constituted being and becoming a refugee. We will explore in depth the concepts of ‘zoe’ and ‘bios’, and put them to use in exploring their experiences of childhood, evaluating their surroundings and their role in forming their sense of personhood, relating it back to the positionality of refugee children. Keep in mind that some/many children may identify as a refugee or have family with refugee status.

Explaining the brief to students (2 minutes)

During this lesson we will explore what it means to be a child refugee. We will do so through Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’ in relation to child refugees within refugee camps. We will ask you to describe what you think is essential in life, particularly in childhood, so that you can understand the meaning of the concept in terms of your own lives. This will allow you to reflect on your own political, economic, historical and social lives. Through stories, shown through multimedia, we will explain how children are portrayed and understood when becoming a refugee. We will also learn about what a refugee camp is and their purpose. You will participate in group activities to share your ideas about what you have learned during the lesson, demonstrating your knowledge of the concept ‘bare life’ in relation to child refugees. You will also learn that anthropology helps us understand the three-dimensional lives of people like child refugees, beyond simplistic news headlines.

The objectives of this lesson are:

  • To understand Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’
  • To understand how one becomes a refugee and how this affects their life
  • To understand what children lose when they are reduced to bare life
  • To reflect on your own positionality and experience of childhood, to comprehend your economic, historical, political and social life.

Section 1: 7 minutes

Start by asking them to discuss what they think a refugee is

  • After listening to the student’s ‘ideas’ about what is a refugee, give the official definition: Amnesty International defines a refugee as ‘a person who has fled their own country because they are at serious risk of human rights violations and persecution.’
  • Give statistics to emphasise the huge proportion of refugees that are children; In June 2020 36 million out of 281 million were child refugees (UNICEF)- also show awareness that there may be child refugees in the class.

Ask for ideas about what makes a refugee camp and give information about it:

  • Refugee camps are temporary facilities built to provide immediate protection and assistance to people who have been forced to leave their homes.
  • Usual facilities in refugee camps: Shelter (tents and plastic tarps), emergency relief items (blankets, mats, mosquito nets, clothing), water, food, healthcare and legal aid to protect against forceful return to their country and help families reunite.
  • However, refugee camps grow exponentially and end up being an almost permanent home for the majority of refugees.
  • “The average length of time that refugees spend in camps is 17 years.”- 2004 UNHCR report.

Section 2: 7 minutes

Ask the students what in their life are the essentials?

  • What are the components of ‘essentials’- ask them to categorise them- are they material, emotional, social?

We will then do an activity getting the students to write down aspects that they consider as ‘essentials’ and cut them out. They will then organise the cut outs into essential and non-essential- then organise into a hierarchy of importance.

Link this to childhood:

  • Is age a factor when considering the essentials of life? Ask them to question whether all individuals have political, historical, economic and social agency regardless of social groupings. 
  • Get them to consider topics they have studied in school e.g. historical events involving political rights that they can use to understand why these components are fundamental in human rights and how life can be impacted without these. 

Break down the students’ responses so they see how much is taken away in a refugee’s life.

  • Include here the idea of the sort of agency the children think they have so that they can understand that they themselves have a level of agency of political, historical, economic and social which is applicable to them and adults. 

WATCH VIDEO: 2 minutes

‘Life in a Syrian refugee camp’ | BBC News Beat  – video about child refugees explaining their experiences in the camp. The Children in the video are similar in age to the students in the lesson, making it easier to draw comparisons.


After watching the video, have a short group discussion on the question: what do they think they have control in their lives in comparison to the child refugees in the video.

Section 3: 8 minutes

Define what bare life is

  • Explain Zoë and Bios so that they can understand bare life
  • Explanation that Zoë and bare life are not the same thing – bare life is the condition which is created when someone is reduced from their political life to zoë, the purely biological.
  • Explain that ‘bare life’ is the state in which life has been reduced to its biological elements – simply enough to keep someone alive.
  • Explain that bare life is the reduction from one form of life to another.
  • That it is the change which constitutes bare life and which is what makes it applicable to the cases of refugees – as they often are locations in which the inhabitants have moved from one state of existence to another.
  • This leads into the theory of Zoe and Bios.
  • These can be taught as the points to and from which establish bare life.
  • ‘Zoe’ is the biological life – here we can ask the class to think of examples of what is necessary to maintain simply the biological existence of keeping people alive- give examples such as food, shelter, water, hygiene and sanitation etc.
  • Repeat in relation to bios- including explanation that bios is the form or way that life is lived and includes the elements of life which make it life as we know it but aren’t essential to literally staying alive.

Final Activity (2 minutes)

Shout out examples of the ‘essentials’ in a child’s life that we have previously discussed such as education, clothing, voting, freedom to move etc. The children will then write and hold up either ‘zoe’ or ‘bios’ in response which tests what they have learnt.

Brief note:

In order to show we recognise the importance of sensitivity when discussing issues such as refugees in Manchester especially surrounding the current crisis in Afghanistan, we want to briefly remind students that no matter their situation, help is always available, and provide a couple of links for them to refer to if they feel their mental health is suffering;


Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

BBC Newsbeat, 2014. Life in a Syrian refugee camp. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 17 November 2021].

Redfield, P., 2014. Life in Crisis: the Ethical Journal of Doctors without Borders. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Toronto: Knopf Canada.