Human Capital

Human Capital:A History of Putting Refugees to Work

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Historian Laura Robson unveils the dark heart of our purportedly humanitarian international regime. Tracing the century-long history of attempts to remake refugees into disposable migrant labor, Robson elucidates global humanitarianism’s deep-seated commitment to refugee exploitation and containment.

Surveying more than a hundred years of policy across the globe, Robson captures the travails of Balkan refugees in the late Ottoman Empire, Roosevelt’s secret plans to use German Jewish refugees as laborers in Latin America, and contemporary European efforts to deploy Syrians as low-wage workers in remote regions of Jordan.

The advent of internationalist refugee aid has long been told as an inspirational story in which reformers fought tirelessly for a system that would recognize and guarantee the rights of displaced and dispossessed people. But as Robson demonstrates, the motives behind modern refugee policy can be mercenary. Refugees have become easy prey for global industrial capitalism.


  • Laura Robson reframes the history of international refugee policy, showing that security questions and labor needs have always been at its center. The story she tells is not only about the past but is vital for understanding responses to displacement today.

    ILANA FELDMAN, Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs, George Washington University
  • In this impassioned and important book, Laura Robson casts the modern system of international refugee relief — its origins, evolution, and current objectives — in a damning new light. A powerful, revelatory account of the strategies used by great powers to control and exploit refugees under the guise of humanitarian assistance.

    DANE KENNEDY, author of The Imperial History Wars: Debating the British Empire