Interrogating asylum from containment to care: the penitential ethics of policing Haitian refugees

This post is part of a series linked to the workshop “Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique”.


Haiti provides fertile ground for excavating the foundations of the contemporary humanitarian regime in capitalism, imperialism, and racialism. Historical racial conceptions of Haiti and Haitians have deeply influenced contemporary policies and forms of assistance that have been directed toward the nation and its citizens. Through analysis of two examples from the 1990s involving organizational aid extended to Haitian survivors of political violence, I argue that humanitarian practices—with their deep roots in 19th century anti-slavery movements for abolition and the 20th century rescue of European populations subjected to human rights violations and genocide—can also be racial projects (Omi and Winant 1994) that have penitential dimensions.

In this paper I suggest that anthropologists must extend the temporal, spatial, and political frameworks by which humanitarianism is conceived. Humanitarianism has been defined as obligatory action to assist others in need by virtue of their common humanity and possession of inherent rights to safety and security. Humanitarian interventions are typically imagined as occurring across sovereign borders in response to an emergency—whether in the form of failed or failing states, political conflict, environmental disasters, infectious disease outbreaks, or other catastrophes. In practice, moral and political consensus on the part of an imagined community is a prerequisite to acknowledging a crisis, recognizing the worthiness and rights of “victims” to receive assistance, and intervention to aid others.

“Humanitarian” action does not occur solely in response to recognized states of calamity across transnational boundaries in part because the lines between ruptures of routine and routines of rupture cannot be clearly drawn, whether within or across the borders of a nation-state (James 2010). Similarly, populations experiencing ontological insecurity also may not fall neatly into circumscribed categories of need or victimization. The precarities of everyday life mean that the temporality and boundaries of care, its provision or exchange directly or at a distance, and the moral foundations of aid from secular to religious, can vary immensely over time and lack distinct margins. Depending on the temporal framework in which a crisis is identified and defined, populations may become the objects of multiple forms of aid simultaneously and in succession, such as faith-based charity, humanitarian relief, human rights activism, international development, and assistance arising from corporate social responsibility, among other interventions. All of these forms of intercession typically aim to restore order of some kind and to “rehabilitate” persons perceived to be deprived, displaced, defenseless, damaged, or even disordered. However, a common perception of such negative conditions, and also of the individuals and populations enduring them, is “undesirability.”

In his analysis of the plight of refugees and the history of camps, Michel Agier (2011: 32-33) argues that “[The] management of undesirables … draws on at least two combined forces, humanitarian and police, [and] forms part, whether they like it or not, of the same mechanism of control.” Agier (2011: 4) describes the emergence of “forms of camps that make up a mechanism for keeping away undesirables and foreigners of all kinds—refugees, displaced, ‘rejected’” to define further two reified domains: “on the one hand, a clean, healthy and visible world; on the other, the world’s residual ‘remnants’, dark, diseased and invisible.” In outlining the institutional forces required to consolidate such a separation between worlds, he asserts that humanitarian organizations have claimed expertise and power over the management of these spaces and the separation and containment of undesirable persons within them.

In addition to the compassionate and policing forces Agier identifies in the apparatus of humanitarian governance, racial formations can also contribute to the containment and management of undesirables through compassionate care. Racial formation refers to “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed,” through “historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized” (Omi and Winant 1994: 55). In the case of Haitian refugees, race and racism conjure a specter of undesirability that refracts through humanitarian policing projects. What is now called the “international community” has more often than not viewed Haitians through the lens of “undesirability.” From their unlikely achievement of independence from French colonizers in 1804—which prompted 19th century slaveholding and imperial nations to view black liberty as cancerous or a contagion—to the fears of their religious practices, health status, and poverty, Haitians, especially those seeking asylum in the US, have also been categorized as national security threats.

In the early 1990s, after political upheaval in Haiti produced tens of thousands of “undesirable” refugees in search of sanctuary across borders, two temporary programs were founded to contain, manage, and even police displaced Haitians. Each project demonstrates the slippages between care and policing, but also how conceptions of race (and racism) were embedded in the rationales for intervention. The first program, sited in greater-Boston, Massachusetts, mobilized Catholic charity to recover and rehabilitate “unaccompanied refugee minors” held in detention camps in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The second program, located in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, mobilized the norms of secular human rights to rehabilitate victims of organized violence.

Although the care provided in these two “spaces of security” (James 2010) contrasts with the so-called humanitarian space of the Guantánamo camp, I show how even in sites intended to rehabilitate and repair the logic of encampment remains. Humanitarian policing thus cannot be limited to a material structure of confinement in geographic space but extends into the domains of development, human rights activism, social welfare, and human services.

A final level of analysis for which supporting documentary evidence is uneven between the two cases concerns the role of humanitarian action to mitigate harm to an institution’s corporate image. Both programs arose in the context of organizational scandals on the part of the institutional provider of aid. I suggest that these two projects raise questions of whether aid is ever solely disinterested for the donor or provider, whether on the part of individuals or institutions. These examples also suggest that for both the provider and recipient of assistance, charitable action can also be penitential. As evoked here the term penitential is used in its sense as “rehabilitative” and fulfilling a need for penance, but also in an archaic sense of being penal, disciplinary, and corrective. I explore in this paper, therefore, the knotted relationships among race, humanitarianism, policing, and scandal. Overall, this analysis suggests that aiding the undesirable represents the quintessence of humanitarian action as compassionate care, but also as control or policing. However, aiding the undesirable is not solely neutral or impartial; it may also serve as reparation for past institutional harms as a form of penance.


Agier, Michel. 2011. Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity.

James, Erica Caple. 2010. Democratic Insecurities: Violence, Trauma, and Intervention in Haiti. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. Second edition. New York: Routledge.




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