The word ‘refugee’ is very often placed next to words like ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’. Through these words, our attention is called to dramatic events that have forced people to flee their homes and search for shelter elsewhere – perhaps the fall of an old regime, the rise of a new regime, the outbreak of war or the onset of a sudden natural disaster. Emergencies are declared so that different groups of people – from policymakers to academics to ordinary citizens – feel compelled to act immediately to help and to find solutions to such situations. In this way, emergencies are push buttons for action. The idea of ‘emergency’ is an incredibly powerful mobilising tool, which in turn makes declaring an emergency an incredibly powerful act.

This why we must be cautious about how and when we use this word. The power of emergency can be harnessed for good, but it can also be misused or abused. If we focus on the declaration of an ‘emergency’ situation in the Mediterranean in 2015 (when states and citizens became aware of huge numbers of migrants drowning in attempts to reach European shores) we can see these paradoxes. On the one hand, NGOs raised considerable amounts of money by using the label of a humanitarian ‘crisis’ and this allowed them to launch projects that would save hundreds of lives. Yet, at the same time, European governments used the invocation of a ‘refugee crisis’ to close their borders, impose restrictions and suspend usual rights and freedoms in the name of restoring control and order. Italy has declared ‘migration emergencies’ every year for the past decade.

So while ‘emergency’ is a hugely effective mobilising tool, we need to ask who it helps in the long run. Refugees themselves? Or governments who want to turn refugees away? We don’t need to throw ideas like crisis or emergency out of the window, but we do need to recognise that they allow unusual courses of action to be taken, often without being questioned or examined.

Further Reading and Resources

The anthropologist Janet Roitman has written a book called Anti-Crisis which looks at what happens when a ‘crisis’ is declared and asks who benefits from labelling events with this term. She looks at the historical origins of the word as well as exploring lots of examples, including the financial crisis of 2007: Roitman, J. (2014) Anti-Crisis. Durham: Duke University Press.

Daniel Trilling wrote an article for The Guardian in 2018 which deconstructs a lot of ideas about the 2015 migration ‘crisis’ – he asks if the ‘crisis’ is over and who it has been a ‘crisis’ for: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jun/05/five-myths-about-the-refugee-crisis. This is also available as a podcast: https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2018/jun/25/five-myths-about-the-refugee-crisis-podcast.

In the introduction to Health in Humanitarian Emergencies, Mark Anderson and Michael Gerber question how ‘unusual’ crises or disasters are. They note that “many of us perceive floods, epidemics, earthquakes, droughts, and wars as unusual events. But, the opposite is true. Rather than being rare events, disasters are common. Somewhere in the world, a disaster occurs almost daily. During the ten years between 2006–2015, there were 1,680 floods, 335 epidemics, 249 earthquakes, 179 landslides, 160 droughts, and 19 wars. That is 262 disasters every year during that ten-year period”. See Townes, D.A., Gerber, M. & Anderson, M., (2018) Health in humanitarian emergencies: principles and practice for public health and healthcare practitioners, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In Chapter 6 of his book Life in Crisis, Peter Redfield asks an important question related to emergencies: when does an ‘emergency’ situation end? What makes something stop being an ‘emergency’ anymore – is it because issues have been resolved or is it simply donor fatigue and loss of interest? Redfield, P. (2013). Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors without Borders. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Published by Discussing Displacement

Discussing Displacement is a blog dedicated to explaining some of the key ideas and arguments within Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

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