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(2022-2023) Aid as a way to govern people in a refugee camp

by | Nov 28, 2022 |

By Florence Evans-Thomas, Lucie McCrone, Lara van Golen, Daniel Voznak, Finlay Watson

Anthropological perspectives can provide a useful lens through which to analyse humanitarian and development issues as they provide attention to the individual experiences of the people they affect. Our project will use anthropological theories which will be illustrated through drawings and then filmed to create a short video on the ways humanitarian aid has been used as a way to govern people, with particular focus on the setting of the Moria refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesvos. 

Until it was burned down in September 2020, allegedly by a group of Afghan camp inmates, Moria stood as Europe’s largest camp for refugees, and was characterised by its appalling overcrowded, makeshift conditions which framed it as a sort of ‘open-air prison’ (The National Herald, 2018). It represented a site of ‘failing camp administration and irregular bureaucracy’ which had led to ‘the disregard for human rights and EU asylum law’ (Balouziyeh, 2017, as cited in Böhme and Schmitt, 2022: 10). The events and processes which caused the camp’s failure can also be seen as illustrative of how refugees were governed by authoritative bodies which were either explicitly or indirectly linked to humanitarian aid, as the following examples will demonstrate.

It has been widely reported that the living conditions in the Moria camp were at crisis point before the fire, for example the provision of only one meal a day to inhabitants, the limited access to water and shelter and so on. By reducing the refugees within the Moria camp to a kind of ‘bare life’, as theorist Giorgio Agamben (1995) would argue, the UN and the Greek government were able to control and govern the refugees. Agamben conceptualised ‘bare life’ as the state where individuals are reduced to solely their biological functions, known as zoë, and excluded from any social and political existence, known as bios. In the Moria camp, refugees had to be reduced to their biological existence of minimal survival in order to be provided with aid by humanitarian agencies. In this way, the refugees had to choose between demonstrating their socio-political presence or receiving the basic aid they needed to survive. This created a power hierarchy in the relationship between humanitarian aid providers (who were influenced by the policies of the UN and Greek government) and the aid recipients (the Moria refugees). It further illustrates how in humanitarian spaces ‘the political dynamic emerging from situations of life and death contracts into an attenuated form focused on survival’ (Redfield, 2005: 329) which governs the refugee’s body as it is reduced to ‘bare life’. This form of governance was illustrated by the fact that refugees in Moria were only allowed to receive cash from the government six months after they had entered the camp. Within these six months, the government had complete control over the refugees because they lacked any autonomy to increase their socio-political agency through buying necessary supplies, such as more food and water. Therefore, by minimising the refugee’s political life, the government, and by extension humanitarians who provided the aid, could exercise full control over them due to the dependency produced within this power structure. 

Rozakou (2012), in her study of the management of refugees in Greece, reflects on how the concept of hospitality (filoksenia) has been applied to asylum seekers and migrants resulting in asymmetrical power relations. The official state discourse was that refugees were guests, placing the state in a hierarchically superior position and the refugee in moral debt and an inferior position (Rozakou, 2012: 565). She argues that despite its neutral claims, the humanitarian organisation operating within the camp engaged in these politics of governance. Hospitality of refugees within the camp was conditional on the control, supervision, and education of the guest. Refugees were to sign a contract indicating they would comply with the rules surrounding cleanliness, wastage, and respect (Rozakou, 2012: 568, 569). ‘In the centre, asylum seekers were recipients of aid and objects of control and management, both examined and controlled, classified and subjected to biopolitical power’ (Rozakou, 2012: 570). Within the Moria Camp we see a similar situation; the refugees are subject to screening and identity checks, which while necessary, reinforce stereotypes of the untrustworthy refugee and the expert humanitarian, contesting the Greek state’s framework of hospitality which is meant to treat the refugee as a respected guest. Furthermore, refugees are forced into an inferior and indebted position and subject to tactics of surveillance by more powerful authority figures. Henceforth, it is through the control and disempowerment of refugees through the intensely political practices of the camp that aid becomes a mechanism through which individuals are governed.

In March 2016, the UN struck a deal with Turkey whereby the state was required to send back any undocumented migrant attempting to travel to European Union countries and in return a registered Syrian refugee would be allowed to enter the EU. In order to do so, the Syrian refugee also had to meet certain criteria, such as providing evidence of their suffering and persecution to register them as a refugee eligible for resettlement in the EU. Turkey was also granted free visas for its citizens and fresh association talks with the EU. This illustrates the ways in which refugees are used as tools for political power and governance. In his study of the Sangatte refugee camp in France, Fassin (2005) points out that the suffering body has become the main legal resource for refugees to gain asylum; refugees are encouraged by aid workers to find evidence of their suffering to meet the criteria for resettlement. The recognition of refugee status becomes an act of generosity rather than the fulfilment of a political debt (Fassin, 2005: 372). On the other hand, the suffering body of the refugee has been weaponised by right wing groups seeking to shut down the camps (Fassin, 2005: 364). Thus, whilst humanitarian organisations may declare their differentiation from the field of politics, Fassin (2005) reveals they invariably participate in the biopolitical regime that depoliticises the refugee into categories such as the “suffering body” (2005: 381, 382). We see in the case of the UN handling of the Moria refugee camp and Fassin’s (2005) analysis of Sangatte, refugees are stripped of agency and become tools of political power. 

To conclude, in order to convey how aid has been used to govern people, we will create a short video using narration and drawings which we hope will help to visually illustrate the anthropological theories we apply. We will link these theories to the past realities of the Moria camp to demonstrate the ways in which the UN and Greek government have controlled refugees through aid.


Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer. Sovereign power and bare life.

Böhme, C. and Schmitz, A., (2022). Refugee’s agency and coping strategies in refugee camps during the coronavirus pandemic: ethnographic perspectives. Comparative Migration Studies, 10(1), pp.1-20.

Fassin, D. 2005. Compassion and repression: the moral economy of immigration policies in France. Cultural Anthropology 20, 3.

Redfield, P. (2005) ‘Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis’, Cultural Anthropology, 20(3), pp. 328–361.

Rozakou, K. (2012) ‘The biopolitics of hospitality in Greece: Humanitarianism and the management of refugees’, American Ethnologist, 39(3), pp. 562-577.

The National Herald. (2018). Human Rights Watch Says Lesbos Refugee Center ‘Open-Air Prison’. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2022].