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(2016-7) Beyond the label of ‘refugees’

By Hannah Adamson, Lucy Elizabeth Attwooll-Jones, Sarah Bretton, Harriet Donaldson, Anna Kerby, Sophie Robinson, Alicia Rémont Ospina, Tuana Selvi

Anthropology is grounded in understanding social and cultural variations and similarities in the world (Eriksen, 2001: 1). By providing insight into refugees’ own perceptions of the socio-political conditions they are subjected to upon arriving in a host country, anthropology can help us understand the various requirements refugees have to follow in different contexts across the globe. Through ethnography, issues of displacement can be understood from refugees’ perspectives and based on the effects, sometimes unintended, of development and humanitarian work.  By understanding both sides of aid, anthropologists can create a mutual understanding between the aid workers and refugees. This helps encourage equality rather than a top down approach where workers risk subjecting refugees to Western values that are not necessarily universally applicable.

This is useful in today’s political climate, where increasing numbers of refugees are arriving in places like Britain and France in search of asylum. Redfield’s (2005) ethnography of Medicins Sans Frontiers highlights the importance of anthropological analysis in understanding humanitarianism. Redfield’s notion of ‘minimalist biopolitics’ looks at how, due to the nature of humanitarian work, refugee’s individual voices are overlooked in favour of assessing their biological bodies (2005: 342). Similarly, Ticktin’s (2011) ethnography analyses France’s ‘illness clause’, granting residency permits to refugees who cannot receive treatment for their illness in their country of origin, thus making the right to settlement hinge on a sick body. These ethnographies help us understand humanitarianism by connecting the work of experts to fluctuating socio-political conditions in different nation-states. Further, these scholars show how important it is to understand different refugees’ stories through ethnographic research. In a context where mass numbers of people are processed and cared for, refugees’ individual narratives are often overlooked, causing their social and political identities to be stripped. The result is that the complex histories and contexts of each refugee can become masked, resulting in the view that refugees do not deserve the right to anything more than their biological body – or ‘bare life’. This risks reducing them to the Other, characterised through colonialism as ‘backwards’, ‘primitive’ and inferior to Western bodies.

In light of this, we suggest that the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit’s (GMIAU) work can benefit from questions that anthropological perspectives raise. Working with large numbers of immigrants, from places such as the camps in Calais, we wonder if anthropological analyses are relevant for GMIAU. For example, do processes of settlement face the risk of governing refugees through their biological existence, overlooking their social and political identities? Anthropological analysis might help us find ways of ensuring that each refugee is helped efficiently, whilst not categorising them into the general – and often negative (cf. Rozakou, 2012)  – label of ‘refugee’. Further, when helping children coming from Calais integrate into new families in Manchester, anthropologists can help GMIAU understand how refugees view their new position in society. An ethnographic research would be beneficial in aiding aid organisations to see how best to avoid potential unintended effects and help refugees maintain their identity as autonomous social, political and economic agents.


Eriksen, T.H., 2001. Small Places, Large Issues-: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.

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 Ethnologist39(3), pp.562-577.

Ticktin, M.I., 2011. Casualties of care: Immigration and the politics of humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.