The Citizen Samaritan: The Narrative of European Humanitarianism

Humanitarians often seem to operate outside political frameworks and constraints. However, in the recent years traditional NGOs and humanitarian organizations have proven insufficient in protecting the migrants trying to enter Europe. To make up for these failings, a new form of humanitarianism has emerged. In the 9th chapter of Stories of Europe, researcher Elisa Pascucci introduces us to citizen humanitarianism and the inherent paradoxical narratives of European humanitarian efforts.

The migration movements that began in 2015 have changed Europe. The disturbing imagery and stories of people in distress trying to cross the border shocked, frightened and angered Europeans. While some rallied to close the borders from anyone trying to enter, some stirred to action, to help. An upcoming  volume Citizen Humanitarianism at European Borders (Routledge, 2021), edited by Elisa Pascucci and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert explores these emerging forms of  humanitarianism.  

The volume co-edited by Elisa Pascucci defines citizen humanitarianism as non-governmental and non-NGO-related humanitarian action that comes from individual people coming together to help. After the so-called migration crisis of 2015-2016, some of these groups around Europe disappeared as quickly as they appeared, some were violently repressed by authorities and some continue to operate in some shape or form. The volume highlights how at the root of the citizen humanitarian movements is outrage at the treatment of migrants, which is regarded as particularly unacceptable because it takes place at the borders of Europe. “The conditions of extreme destitution that you see in refugee camps are seen as especially unacceptable in Europe. Many of the volunteers and citizen humanitarians seem to share the problematic perception that Europe is a space where we uphold certain standards of justice, security and freedom”, Pascucci explains. The outrage comes to the picture when European governments fail to fulfil the standards they claim to uphold, protect and even create. 

Humanitarianism and politics hand in hand 

While citizen humanitarians in many instances made up for the failings of governments and NGOs during the most intense stages of the migration movement of 2015, Pascucci urges us to look at the paradoxes within and motivations behind these movements. It is important to document the efforts of these individuals, but also to look at how they see migrants and themselves, and which narratives of Europe are present in the encounters between the helpers and the ones in peril.  

The classical narrative of humanitarianism establishes a certain distance between the helpers and the migrants. Humanitarianism is often seen as apolitical and neutral, but while this has never actually been the case, citizen humanitarianism visibly puts politics back to the act of helping. In a way, being a citizen humanitarian is comparable to political activism, because in many cases the citizens are acting against their own governments. 

The paradoxes that come with living inside the space of justice, security and freedom, is that in many cases it is the safe, enclosed space itself that creates peril at its borders. 

“We see that the securitization of borders and violent conduct of border authorities have increased in recent years”, Pascucci explains. “The problems that the volunteers are trying to solve are essentially created by the European system at large.” 

Power structures at play 

The citizen humanitarian or “grassroots” movements also claim to be closer to the migrants. What this means in practice varies from person to person – which makes it both potentially equitable and problematic. “There are possibilities for more equal relationships within these movements, but at the same time the differences between the helper and the migrant still play out”, Pascucci reflects. But what are these differences? It suffices to imagine for a little while: what does the helper look like? Possibly white, middle class and European? And who are they helping? Possibly someone non-white, non-European and impoverished? Whether these stereotypes or characteristics are present or not in the encounters between the migrants and the helpers, the racialized structures always are.

“One of the ways that ‘race’ is fixed onto a body of people, is the freedom to move”, says Pascucci, “the European helpers can travel to other countries to volunteer and to help, but the people they are trying to help are constantly constrained while in Europe. No matter what you do, it’s difficult to put yourself on the same level as the migrant. The self-perception and the politics of what the citizen humanitarians do are very different.” 

In the book, Pascucci and Jumbert are not seeking to criticize the citizen humanitarian movement in general, but to point out some of the pervasive narratives that still linger within in. “There is a remarkable ethical, political and altruistic commitment to helping the migrants present in these movements”, Pascucci reflects. “At the same, we need to be more lucid about the fact that when we step out and help, we step into a political field.” In a nutshell, it is crucial to be aware of the racial and power structures built within humanitarian help provided by Europeans to non-Europeans. “The way we border Europe and create danger at the external borders is a way of establishing a geopolitical distance between Europe and the rest of the world. This is a fundamental issue that we have to address.” 




Dr Elisa Pascucci is a post-doctoral researcher in subproject 3, Migration and the narratives of Europe as an "Area of freedom, security and justice". She is a human geographer whose research focuses on refugee and migrant political agency, spaces and infrastructures of refuge and humanitarian aid, and qualitative research methods. She is the co-editor of Citizen Humanitarianism at European Borders (Routledge, 2021). 


Text: Iida Karjalainen & Bea Bergholm