Humanitarian Ethics – Berlin Colloquium on Contemporary History

From Rights to Favour? Didier Fassin on the ‘Moral Economy of Asylum in Contemporary Society’

Some notes by Johannes Paulmann (IEG, Mainz)

“Refugees Welcome” – Portraits of refugees and volunteers as part of a rally, 3rd Oct. 2015, Vienna, Mariahilferstraße, photo: © Bwag/Commons, CCBY-SA-4.0

The anthropologist and sociologist Didier Fassin (Princeton) opened the 21st Berlin Colloquium on Contemporary History at the Einstein Forum, Potsdam, on 3 December 2015. In his public lecture Fassin analysed the recent shift in representing individual refugees and the legitimacy of their claims – a shift, as he explained, from a right to asylum to granting asylum as a favour. How are we to explain the accompanying changes in recognition rates and in the manner of accepting refugees?

Fassin sees the convergent logics of two developments at play. On the one side, the political economy regarding immigration changed during the 1970s. Until then workers from abroad were invited and welcomed into an expanding west European economy. With the onset of economic crisis and the slowing down of growth, immigrants were regarded as superfluous in the labour market. However, this perspective is not a sufficient explanation. It took also, on the other side, a change in terms of moral economy, the logic of which shifted from a matter of compassion and admiration for those persecuted to suspicion and hostility towards immigrants during the 1990s when the Cold War ended, the control of borders within the EU was abolished, far right movements rose, and the social integration of refugees or migrants became a matter of public debate.

Fassin adapts here historian E.P. Thompson’s idea of the ‘moral economy’ but neither regards it as a code particular to a group, such as rural workers during the industrial revolution, nor understands it as something long lasting and stable. He rather uses the notion of a moral economy to describe the production, circulation and appropriation of values and affects within the realm of specific problems, in his case migrants wishing to enter a country. The moral economy regarding ‘refugees’ has changed several times during the period since the Second World War. While I would disagree with the historical periodization of the affects and the way Fassin links them to particular groups, for example concentration camp survivors, Latin American resistance fighters or civil war refugees from the former Yugoslavia, the elements he detects certainly were central to the evolving moral economy: commiseration, respect, admiration, compassion, and mistrust.

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“Refugees are Human” – Humanitarian Narratives and Strategies

In a recent conference held at the Leibniz Institute of European History international scholars discussed in an interdisciplinary dialogue the history of European concepts of humanity in practice. However, as matter of fact the relationship between concepts and practices of humanity is not only one of historical research, but is also most relevant in our days. Confronted with the tremendous humanitarian crisis of hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men trying to escape from disaster, war, and persecution – many of them drowning and dying on their perilous journeys to the alleged safe haven of Europe – voices are loudly raised appealing to common humanity and demanding appropriate action by the international community.

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Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway Station, 4 September 2015, Picture by Mstyslav Chernov CC BY-SA 4.0

Horrified by the loss of thousands of lives in the Mediterranean Sea and on the concrete occasion of the appalling discovery of 71 dead refugees asphyxiated inside an abandoned lorry nearby the Austrian-Hungarian border the UN Secretary-General Baan Ki-Moon launched an urgent appeal on 28 August 2015: “A large majority of people undertaking these arduous and dangerous journeys are refugees fleeing from places such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. International law has stipulated – and states have long recognized – the right of refuges to protection and asylum. When considering asylum requests, States cannot make distinctions based on religion or other identity – nor can they force people to return to places from which they have fled if there is a well-founded fear of persecution or attack. This is not a matter of international law; it is also our duty as human beings. […] I appeal to all governments involved to provide comprehensive responses, expand safe and legal channels of migration and act with humanity, compassion and in accordance with their international obligations.”[1]

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Humanitarianism & the Media

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At St Antony’s College Oxford, the Richard von Weizsäcker fellow organizes a conference on humanitarianism and aid. The meeting takes place at the European Studies Centre, 70 Woodstock Road, on 19 -20 June 2015. It focuses on the media as an essential feature of the history of humanitarianism. Contributors discuss both the role of the media in humanitarian activities, and the imagery produced in print or on screen. Scholars from history, media studies, and anthropology present recent research with a view on the visual discourse, the meanings and materiality of the images since the beginning of the 20th century. Critically considering the medialisation of the humanitarian, they analyse the interaction between humanitarian agencies and media actors.

Speakers and topics:
(Detailed Programme Hum & Media 2015)

Johannes Paulmann (Oxford/ Mainz)
Introduction

I Humanitarian Imagery

Katharina Stornig (Mainz)
Promoting Distant Children in Need: Christian Imagery in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Rose Holmes (Sussex)
‘Make the situation real to us without stressing the horrors’: Children, photography and British humanitarianism in the Spanish Civil War

Daniel Palmieri (ICRC, Geneva)
Humanitarianism on the Screen: The ICRC Films from the 1920’s to the 1960’s

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Another blog on issues of humanitarianism

In one of my last entries I have referred to the interesting blog of the journal humanity (http://www.humanityjournal.org/blog) with its manifold contributions on the issue of human rights and humanitarianism.

Today I would like to recommend the blog:

Displacement Activity

The history & historiography of forced migration, humanitarianism, and sometimes even human rights

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The blog is run by Jared Manasek, a PhD candidate in the department of history at Columbia University. Launched in 2012 Displacement Activity provides various useful information about articles, books, call for papers, conferences, fellowships and reviews concerning the issues of refugees and humanitarian history. Enjoy discovering Jared Manasek’s blog!