Humanitarian Borders

Humanitarian Borders:Unequal Mobility and Saving Lives

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The seamy underside of humanitarianism

*Winner of the International Political Sociology book award for 2023*

What does it mean when humanitarianism is the response to death, injury and suffering at the border? This book interrogates the politics of humanitarian responses to border violence and unequal mobility, arguing that such responses mask underlying injustices, depoliticise violent borders and bolster liberal and paternalist approaches to suffering. Focusing on the diversity of actors involved in humanitarian assistance alongside the times and spaces of action, the book draws a direct line between privileges of movement and global inequalities of race, class, gender and disability rooted in colonial histories and white supremacy and humanitarian efforts that save lives while entrenching such inequalities. Based on eight years of research with border police, European Union officials, professional humanitarians, and grassroots activists in Europe’s borderlands, including Italy and Greece, the book argues that this kind of saving lives builds, expands and deepens already restrictive borders and exclusive and exceptional identities through what the book calls humanitarian borderwork.


  • Polly Pallister-Wilkins is the ideal guide on a journey to the front lines of contemporary debates about borders and immigration. Timely, thought-provoking, and well-written, Humanitarian Borders is a must read that exposes the disingenuous ways state violence at borders is repackaged as noble humanitarianism.

    Reece Jones, author of Violent Borders
  • 'Saving lives while taking lives is the perverse logic of global borders today,' writes Polly Pallister-Wilkins in her deft account of the intertwining of life and death, of policing and aid, of present 'crisis' and colonial hauntings, at the security frontline of today’s borders. Humanitarian Borders is an engaging and thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of humanitarianism and to the wider quest for an alternative politics of mobility in the shadow of fences, camps and walls.

    Ruben Andersson, University of Oxford
  • Humanitarian Borders crosses intellectual borders of international politics, decoloniality and migration to bring readers into an analysis of mobility injustice that may be uncomfortable, but is absolutely necessary. How does the need to help, justified by a primordial plea to 'save lives' become part and parcel of a branded effort to produce inequalities amongst the helpers and the helped? Decolonizing humanitarian borders is urgently needed and this book is an excellent place to start.

    Lisa Ann Richey, coauthor (with Alexandra Cosima Budabin) of Batman Saves the Congo: How Celebrities Disrupt the Politics of Development