IHSA Conference 2018 | The instrumentalisation of disasters by David Keen

Today, not just disaster but the functions—and instrumentalisation—of disaster have been brought right into the heart of Europe. If widespread official violence and the instrumentalisation of disaster can happen right under the eyes of a free press and under the watch of two of the world’s most established democracies, what then is possible in greater seclusion? This blog is based on a keynote speech delivered at the International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference held in August 2018 at the ISS.


Visiting Calais in October 2015, the child psychiatrist Lynne Jones asked, “how is it possible that on the borders of a north European town, there are some 6,000 people living in conditions worse than those I have encountered with Somali refugees on the Ethiopian border, Pakistanis after a devastating earthquake, or Darfuris in the deserts of Northern Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world?”

It was shocking to realise that such a situation could develop—and be allowed to develop—in the heart of Western Europe. When disasters have occurred in more distant lands, government and aid officials have often pointed to obstacles like remoteness, insecurity and the rainy season. But Calais is an hour-and-a-half by train from London and Paris.

Where the functions of disaster have been recognised, this has often been in relation to ‘faraway’ places. These functions may include political repression in a ‘state of emergency’ as well as profits from price movements and from the depopulation of resource-rich areas. But today, not just disaster but the functions—and instrumentalisation—of disaster have been brought right into the heart of Europe.

The instrumentalisation of disasters

A big part of the instrumentalisation of disasters today is the logic of deterrence. Many aid workers and human rights workers saw the appalling conditions on the Greek island of Lesbos as part of an attempt to deter migration. In Calais, government officials have sometimes made it pretty clear that they want to maintain pressure on the migrants and to make conditions so bad as to discourage people from coming, and migrants/refugees in Calais themselves also saw a connection. For example, one young Sudanese man from Darfur said in the summer of 2016 when we were in Calais that “beatings are getting worse as large numbers are here now and they [the police] want to discourage it.”

The political instrumentalisation of Calais has involved not just deterrence, but also political theatre aimed at domestic audiences. This is partly about stirring up fears and then exploiting them politically. Particularly in the run-up to the UK’s Brexit referendum in June 2016, Calais was repeatedly on the front page of the UK’s Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the Sun—considered right-wing newspapers. It somehow symbolised, crystallised and exacerbated very deep-rooted fears about immigration, criminality, disease, terrorism, and loss of control.

Another political pay-off from the high-profile situation in Calais was that it allowed the British government under Labour and then under David Cameron to send a strong message that, even while still within the EU, the UK was taking tough measures to control illegal immigration. When UK border controls were set up in France in 2002, this contributed to a sharp fall in UK asylum applications. It also had the effect of fostering the informal migrant settlements around Calais, which were then used to underline the necessity of strong controls.

Ever since the first major settlement in Calais in 1999, there have been periodic police actions to intimidate and disperse people. I think a great many British people do not realise what has been done ‘on their behalf’ in Calais and surrounding areas. This is an example of what Mark Duffield referred to a long time ago as ‘functional ignorance’. The UK government is been deeply complicit in this particular ‘hostile environment’, and indeed Calais migrants have often expressed this view. The UK has helped to plan and fund dispersals and has also sometimes taken credit for them. For example, a 2010 UK government press release welcomed the package of actions agreed with France the previous year, saying a key measure was “the dismantling of the illegal encampments along the Channel and North Sea coast.”[1]

In October 2016, French police, in coordination with the UK, destroyed the most famous ‘jungle’ camp, which had been established on a landfill site ridden with asbestos in January 2015. But such measures tend to disperse migrants and make them less visible rather than actually resolving the situation. In his book Illegality Inc., Swedish anthropologist Ruben Andersson brilliantly documented the way migration controls shift the problem geographically while allowing short-term gains from appearing tough.

In Calais, the violence of French police has been well documented, for example by the Refugee Rights Data Project (now Refugee Rights Europe) and by Human Rights Watch. One Calais volunteer told us: “Everyone has had experience of teargas or rubber bullets. The head injuries from rubber bullets were terrible.”

Sadly, the very enterprise of the migrants seems to have attracted further police repression. This may reflect what Noam Chomsky once called the threat of a good example. While we were at the camp in 2016, there was a series of large-scale police raids on the surprisingly vibrant network of shops and restaurants, closing some and confiscating food, drinks and documents.

Violent action and the plausibility of propaganda

This brings me to Hannah Arendt’s concept of ‘action as propaganda’ – essentially the use of violent action (often by totalitarian regimes) to create a world in which implausible propaganda becomes more plausible over time. One historical example she gave was confining Jews to insanitary ghettoes and camps so that they came to appear disease-ridden and even less than human, in line with Nazi propaganda. Calais has been a horrendous example of ‘action as propaganda’, with harsh punishment of any signs of cultural or economic life; meanwhile, violence and disease are generally portrayed as part of the threat that Calais poses, ignoring the reality of a community that could be extraordinarily kind and hospitable. Even the violence and disease that have occurred in the camp have overwhelmingly been a consequence of neglect and overcrowding. Meanwhile, the very brutality of police responses has helped reinforce the message that these vulnerable people are somehow an existential threat to Western populations.

Calais is part of a much wider phenomenon of outsourcing migration control. This involves a large dose of de-responsibilisation, a fairly systematic tolerance for human rights abuses that are in some sense functional and that can also be conveniently blamed on others.

And if widespread official violence and the instrumentalisation of disaster can happen right under the eyes of a free press and under the watch of two of the world’s most established democracies, what then is possible in greater seclusion?

EU member states have enabled the Libyan Coast Guard to turn back thousands of people to Libya, where they face torture, sexual violence and other horrendous abuses[2]. In Sudan, the Rapid Support Forces (which grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias responsible for genocide) have been deployed against migrants (usually from ethnic groups victimised in the genocide) as part of Sudan’s effort to demonstrate to the European Union that it can contain flows of migrants[3].

We need to be extraordinarily wary of the signals sent when certain populations are deemed systematically to be unwanted and even, in Arendt’s telling word, ‘undeportable’. Arendt showed that in the 1920s and 1930s, in a context of mass expulsions in Europe and a corresponding unwillingness to receive these people, “the very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned—victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike—the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy.”[4] The Nazis had carefully tested the ground and found that almost no-one was willing to receive the Jews, Arendt stressed, before they launched their project of elimination.

How can all this possibly be justified? Well, today the shadowy figure of the ‘people smuggler’ has acquired important political functions as a scapegoat and a convenient alibi for neglect and abuse by a range of political authorities and unaccountable militias. Studies of the diverse economic and political functions of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism suggest that the rebel or terrorist has frequently become a kind of useful enemy[5]; I would suggest that in many ways the figure of ‘people smuggler’ has stepped conveniently into this pre-existing paradigm. And like the terrorist, the ‘exploitative smuggler’ is also routinely reproduced by the policies of those who claim to revile him, not least the tightening of immigration controls (as Andersson and others have shown).

Closely related to the relentless official focus on the ‘human smuggler’ is the tendency to place everything within an ‘anti-crime’ framework. Again, crime is a reality, but it is very dangerous when anything and anyone remotely connected to migration—including the attempt to claim asylum—is labelled as criminal. The emerging ‘anti-crime’ framework is also a great alibi for abusive officials or neglectful officials and a great way of disguising official involvement in fuelling conflict.

The redefinition of humanitarianism

Closely related to the war on crime and on human smugglers is a fairly systematic redefinition of humanitarianism. Humanitarianism has today been routinely redefined as the prevention of dangerous journeys. In these circumstances, Western government policies that make these journeys more dangerous; for example, the curbing of search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean, or encouraging violence in Calais, or even turning a blind eye to attacks on migrants travelling through Mexico serve as another form of Arendt’s ‘action as propaganda’. Within this emerging system, drowning may come to serve two related functions—first, as deterrence and, second, as propaganda for the allegedly ‘humanitarian’ project of preventing people from making the journey in the first place.

It seems to be a case – to paraphrase Henry II’s infamous reported incitement to the murder of archbishop Thomas-a-Becket, of “who will rid us of these troublesome migrants?” As with the creation of ‘safe areas’ in Bosnia that turned out not to be safe, Western governments cannot be honest about the evolving situation in France, Greece, Libya, Sudan, Mexico, Turkey, Sri Lanka and many other countries when they are obsessed with containing people within those environments.


[1] UK Prime Minister’s Office, 2010, UK-France Summit 2010 Declaration on Immigration, November 2. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-france-summit-2010-declaration-on-immigration
[2] Amnesty International, 2017, Libya’s Dark Web of Collusion, December
[3] Suliman Baldo, 2017, Ominous Threats Descending on Darfur, Enough, Washington, November; Susanne Jaspars and Margie Buchanan-Smith, 2018, Darfuri migration from Sudan to Europe; From displacement to despair, ODI, London, September forthcoming
[4] Hannah Arendt, 1951, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York, Harcourt Brace.
[5] David Keen, 2012, Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars is More Important than Winning Them, Yale University Press.

David-Keen.jpgAbout the author: 

David Keen is Professor of Conflict Studies, London School of Economics. He has worked extensively on understanding war, including its causes and functions.

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