Disrupting the Hierarchies of Humanitarianism: Refugee Solidarity in France from 1970 to present.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: International Development


In 2020 the ODI's annual conference 'A humanitarian reset: impacts of a historic year' debated the decentralisation of aid and the role of local actors within a new humanitarian framework. Yet while many scholars and practitioners advocate 'resilience' or 'self-reliance' as a solution to displacement, others have emphasised the importance of solidarity and mutual partnerships. Informed by these debates, I will examine the relationship between grassroots organisations and refugees in France since 1970 by focusing on refugee led initiatives that have been shaped by non-state - refugee collaboration. Histories of humanitarianism are predominately informed by their paternalistic nature and entrenched hierarchies between so-called donors and beneficiaries. I will investigate the historical precedents of collaborative relationships between refugees and grassroots organisations to ask: are more egalitarian and democratic forms of humanitarianism possible? How have such collaborations functioned historically and with what degree of success? Tracing these relationships from the 1970s and adopting a 'bottom-up' approach offers an intriguing insight into the recent flourishing of refugee-led initiatives. Yet do such partnerships risk being a mere act of tokenism? Or is meaningful participation between refugees and the aid sector not only possible but has, in fact, a track record that can be explored through historical work?

This research proposes less to 'rethink' humanitarian hierarchies but rather to consult past alternatives and case studies. Engaging with the vast literature on refugee voice and agency, I begin from Liisa Malkki's call to resist rendering refugees into speechless emissaries, and, adopting a longue durée approach, I will examine the reception of Chilean and Vietnamese refugees at a local level in France during the 1970s. My study will encompass solidarity marches and committees in Grenoble, accommodation centres in Villeneuve run jointly by South American refugees and local actors, and present day collaborations between displaced communities and non-state organisations across France. From Jungala Radio produced by refugees in the Calais 'Jungle', to activists using social media as a platform for first-hand testimonies, I examine whether these present and past initiatives have developed as a result of the inaction and gaps in the responses of the French state and established humanitarian agencies, and how these collaborative projects have evolved, multiplied and responded to increasingly hostile asylum policies and the criminalisation of solidarity.

I am confident that this study will help demonstrate what global organisations such as the UNHCR can learn from refugee-NGO partnerships through history, and how disrupting the hierarchical nature of humanitarian assistance may alter the future of aid relationships.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000649/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2588092 Studentship ES/P000649/1 30/09/2021 29/06/2023 Juliette Frontier