The political potential of responsibility in domestic humanitarianism

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


Operation Sovereign Borders

Even on a frozen winter’s night, the queue snaked around the corner. Taking seats in the Melbourne warehouse for the prospective volunteer information evening, the chatter died down as the charismatic CEO spread his hands and proclaimed: “Our volunteers fill this building with a tsunami of compassion that is so thunderous you can’t imagine there is another world out there. People connected to the idea that we can make a great Australia, that when we sit disillusioned by our political leaders we go bugger them. We don’t need cowards with empty hearts and hack ideas. We can be the moral compass for the society that we want.”

This stirring address was met by applause. It resonated against a wider climate of hostility towards people seeking asylum attempting to reach Australia by boat(1). Since 2013, they were subjected to Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia’s deterrence policy. Spearheaded by a brutal advertising campaign that decried “NO WAY. YOU WILL NOT MAKE AUSTRALIA HOME” to targeted “source countries,” deterrence policy garnered bipartisan and majority voter support. It involved punitive militarized methods such as boat turn-backs by the Australian Navy and indefinite incarceration of people seeking asylum on Nauru and Manus Island.

The queuing masses on this night in Melbourne were looking for a way to help, but also for somewhere to place their faith in an alternative. They expressed frustration and dismay at the trauma inflicted upon people seeking asylum by the Australian government’s deterrence policy. Many volunteers delivered aid to nearly 30,000 people living in Australia on temporary visas. Though not incarcerated, these people seeking asylum could wait for years for their asylum claims to be processed, in precarious conditions with inconsistent work/study rights and a meager government stipend valued at 89 per cent of the lowest welfare benefit. They were structurally forced to rely on informal personal networks and charities. Unlike those in detention who received sustained media coverage, or with conferred refugee status in Australia’s official “humanitarian intake,” these temporary visa holders were almost invisible in public discourse. In policy terms they were deemed “non-persons” “undeserving” of humanitarian aid or permanent residence due to their “unauthorized” arrival (McMillan 2017).

The domestic humanitarian

This piece focuses on domestic humanitarians within Australia providing aid and imagining alternatives to Operation Sovereign Borders. My notion of the “domestic humanitarian” is a fusion of a “humanitarian subject” characterized by a “need to help” (Malkki 2015) or “impulse to give” (Bornstein 2012) to a distant suffering stranger; and a “responsibilized subject” (Rose 1996) impelled by the state to look after their community as a duty and condition of citizenship (Muehlebach 2012). The domestic humanitarian combines a universalized humanitarian impulse with feelings of duty or responsibility tied to citizenship: providing “humanitarianism at home.” I want to consider this relationship between the domestic humanitarian and responsibility. Does the volunteer as a domestic humanitarian feel responsible or “answerable” (Hage and Eckersley 2012) for the punitive policies of their own state that are affecting an “Other” who is also their neighbor? In asking this I join other anthropologists questioning and analyzing distinctions between “home” and “elsewhere,” “citizens” and “non-citizens” (Fassin 2012, Malkki 2015, Brković 2016, Cabot 2018).

My contribution to these efforts has analytic and political import for the anthropology of humanitarianism, within Australia and more generally. Analytically, considering how humanitarian responsibility may manifest domestically is a question not only of scale, but on what happens when scales intersect, and how this may produce new—and multiple— forms of social and moral action. But the most important way in which I hope to contribute is by suggesting that domestic humanitarianism presents the possibility of a more accessible and inclusive political alternative. I turn to two ethnographic examples to elaborate this point.

Political register of fairness and justice

“We’re pushing the reset button!” exclaimed the endlessly energetic facilitator to the roomful of volunteers gathered for a campaign training session.“We’ve been subjected to a national discourse that dehumanizes people! Can I get examples?”

Volunteers called out in rapid fire:

“Illegal” “Fear” “Terrorism” “Queue jumping” “Stop the boats.” “This has been the dominant frame for my lifetime. But how do we want to have this conversation?”

The responses came back more thoughtfully:

“A fair go” “Compassionate” “Responsibility” “Empathy” “Dignity.” “We need to set this up to be stronger than the national interest frame! How are we going to make policies based on our shared values?”

An NGO campaign was launched before the 2016 Australian Election, introducing new humanistic language to change the national conversation about people seeking asylum. This campaign was based on research that found the antagonistic and reactive language of activists was not effective in capturing “the persuadables,” swing voters comprising 60 per cent of the voting population. In the past, in retort to those arguing “it is illegal to seek asylum” activists responded, “it is not illegal,” unintentionally reinforcing the dominant narrative in their rebuttal. Now they practiced a kind of prefigurative politics (Maeckelbergh 2011) by speaking the change they wanted to see, using words that emphasised agency rather than suffering such as hope, freedom, and fair process. They then put this in policy terms, arguing for changes to the refugee determination process that included the introduction of permanent visas, fairer legal review, and family reunion.

Shifting from values to policy required a careful balance whereby volunteers both took and demanded responsibility. Volunteers both felt a sense of collective responsibility to correct wrongs committed by the state, and saw themselves and people seeking asylum as owed political and civic rights(2). But they would no longer wait for a morally corrupt state to change—they would demonstrate what a moral compass looked like. Rather than the state responsibilizing citizens, citizens sought to responsibilize an immoral state.

Cultural register of neighborliness

Half-melting baked goods heaved under home-sewn bunting at a local street festival stall. Women sat taking coin donations for slices of cake and selling branded tea towels. On them, an angel spread wings emblazoned with letters spelling out “Welcome.” Among the letters nestled bikes, books, toys, food, fridges, shoes, houses, and other domestic items of material aid.

 Also in Melbourne, a community group of mainly working-age mothers framed their volunteering as “the support of a neighbor to a neighbor.” They delivered material and food aid to the homes of people seeking asylum, and their fundraising evoked the home and neighborhood through sausage sizzles, garage sales, bake sales, and raffles. This was often married with the domestic arts—sewing, baking and gardening. The code of neighborliness became a way of mobilizing a sense of moral duty in the Australian public to help their neighbor in need, drawing on an established historical and cultural framework of mateship and mutual aid that Oppenheimer (2008) has noted informs a distinctively “Australian way of volunteering.”

Making people seeking asylum into neighbors in need equalized the relationship and reinstated their deservingness of assistance. Although imposing this on a structurally unequal relationship posed potential concerns—such as whether it could be a form of taming the “Other” into the cultural norms of the national space (Hage 1999); or whether everyone could perform the duties of neighborliness, when they did not all have the same rights or secure living conditions—domestic spaces could still be powerful sites for integration (Larsen 2011). This entailed a reconfiguration of the “asylum seeker issue” into a different register: from international to domestic, politics to community, stranger to neighbor, fear to trust. It offered a counterpoint to the “fear-mongering” of politicians and mainstream media. It also gently raised public awareness that people were living in these conditions next door, not only in far-off conflict zones or detention centers.

Towards an accessible “arts of government”

Political, ethical and cultural registers of responsibility coalesced in these domestic humanitarian practices. The new humanistic language of the NGO campaign spoke about fairness and justice. This was not abstracted to a universal moral sentiment but linked to clear policy demands upon the state, yoking an ethical to a political register. Meanwhile, the community group drew on a culturally embedded sense of moral duty to help one’s neighbor in need, rooted in Australian traditions of mateship and mutual aid.

James Ferguson (2009) has noted that the global Left has failed to launch a successful “arts of government.” This is especially pertinent in a time when xenophobic populist movements are experiencing increased success in many parts of the world. In thinking about future directions for the anthropology of humanitarianism, steering away from a “swinging pendulum”-type debate about whether or not humanitarianism is depoliticizing is crucial for remaining open to the political potential within humanitarian methods. What are the political implications of operating across multiple registers of responsibility? The responsibilities generated by domestic humanitarianism may speak across traditional left/right political binaries. Though at first glance my examples may seem quite different, they share a similarity in seeking to make their cause accessible to people of all political persuasions. Unlike more radical activist techniques, pairing political, ethical and cultural registers of responsibility could provide the basis for a more inclusive progressive politics. This may have broader appeal to persuadable voters unsure of their views, and encourage more humane attitudes to “Others” in climates of hostility.


My grateful thanks to everyone who participated in this research during my doctoral fieldwork during 2015-16 in Melbourne.


(1) I use the term “people seeking asylum” rather than “asylum seeker” to emulate best practice in the refugee sector in Australia.

(2) This included the wrongs of settler colonialism, as enacted in solidarity rallies with Indigenous Australians


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