January 26, 2021

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

Boy in tarp shed_Mories

Photo Credit: Knut Bry/Tinagent

Written by: Henrik Kjellmo Larsen & Eleanor Gordon

A Policy of Silence?

After the fire that destroyed the Moria Reception and Identification Centre on the Greek island of Lesvos, on 08 September, the 13,000 migrant-residents were moved into a quickly assembled new camp in Kara Tepe. Within a month this camp was already being referred to as ‘worse than Moria’, which had itself been described as ‘hell on earth’.

After the fire, European Commission (EC) Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johanson, said there would be ‘no more Morias’, recognising that the poor conditions were partly responsible for the developments which led to the fire.

Whether or not conditions in the camp would improve and the Commissioner’s assurances honoured will now be difficult to ascertain in light of a recent General Operation Regulation of the Temporary Reception Facilities in Greece passed on 30 November. This regulation prohibits all workers operating in a refugee camp, including government civil servants and volunteers, from publicly sharing any information about the residents or the conditions in the new camp. Kara Tepe is thus continuing a dangerous trend of hiding harm with a policy of silence.

‘Living Hell’

Moria was designated a ‘hotspot’ due to the overwhelming surge of migrants arriving on Lesvos in 2015. The ‘hotspot approach’ was intended to allow for a quicker Registration and adjudicate of asylum application and provide additional support to ensure dignified shelters and services.

However, when the EU-Turkey statement was signed in 2016, the vastly understaffed Greek asylum service meant asylum claims could not be processed quickly enough. The camp became a bottleneck, severely and perpetually overcrowded, with the 3,000-person capacity far exceeded by up to 20,000 people.

As a consequence, Moria, built as a short term transit camp but without even meeting the UNHCR standards of a transit camp, essentially became a camp for long-term residency where many migrants effectively remained trapped in deplorable conditions for months and sometimes years. Some described the camp as ‘the worst refugee camp on earth’, as ‘a living hell’, and a prisonlike place where the lack of food, poor sanitation, limited water and electricity supply and prevalent violence, earned the camp a reputation of being ‘the moral failure of Europe’. These deplorable camp conditions contributed to a number of fires in the camp, including the fire which destroyed the camp, resulting from technical faults and growing desperation among migrant residents.

Over a period of 18 months, we, two scholars, one of whom has extensive field experience from Lesvos, conducted interviews with humanitarian actors working in Moria on the causes and effects of these poor camp conditions. Invariably, research participants described the conditions as deplorable, and as intended to both deter humanitarian actors and, moreover, prospective migrants hoping to enter the EU. Many were also critical of how information about these conditions was being carefully managed in order to avoid public scrutiny.

Information Control

Humanitarian actors described being prevented from taking photos or video footage in and around the camp by the police: ‘If they get your camera, they delete everything’. This could be an indication of a desire to hide what is going on in Moria, and in so doing to keep it away from media scrutiny.

A number of humanitarian actors also regarded the recent, high-profile arrest of Salam Aldeen, a prominent NGO manager in the field, because he shared pictures and information and was an unrelenting critic of the terrible camp conditions and the treatment of migrants. His arrest was regarded by other humanitarian actors as intended to silence those seeking to document and share what they perceived to be wrongdoing by the Greek authorities. Many also regarded his arrest and the broader practice of policing humanitarian aid workers as intended to deter other volunteers from offering humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian actors also said that when official visitors came, they would only be shown a small part of the camp, and only after it had been cleared and cleaned. These visits, during which journalists are not allowed in, were effectively staged to present the camp in a very particular way to avoid criticism and public scrutiny. However, a difficult balance needed to be maintained between avoiding criticism, while maintaining the spectre of deterrence by ensuring the message was communicated to migrant groups particularly, as well as to domestic groups hostile to migration, about the poor conditions. As one of our research participants (a humanitarian volunteer working in the camp) said in 2019:

They don’t want to keep the camp so bad so that Greece reputation is completely ruined. When Angelina Jolie and the pope visited, they cleaned up the camp a little bit. Journalists are not let in… They don’t want to show the worst part of the camp, but they want to make sure it’s bad enough to not want to come.

Official communication thus becomes a balancing act between presenting a powerful show of deterrence for migrants, as well as those who might want to help them, and evading criticism for failing to meet the international humanitarian standards. This difficult balance is maintained by limiting disseminated information and keeping audiences separate. Paradoxically, the less that is actually known about Moria, the more these dual messages are able to be managed: criticisms can be avoided, and the spectre of detention is all the more powerful because of the element of the unknown.

Barbed wire_mories

Photo Credit: Knut Bry/Tinagent

The Camp as Carceral Space

Prisons also perform this balancing act of communicating different messages to different audiences, and similarly do so by controlling and limiting information that is disseminated.

It is no coincidence that Moria has been referred to repeatedly by our research participants as ‘prison-like’. This is not just because it looked like a prison with its perimeter fences, barbed wire and gates, checkpoints and police guards. Nor is it just because the camp became a space of indefinite confinement. It is also because residents were segregated, contained and screened from outside communities, their movements strictly controlled and curtailed, and information about them tightly controlled.

Carefully managing information about groups in carceral spaces – through segregation, containment and curtailing communication channels – also helps protect the presentation of these groups as deviant and in need of control and punishment. Their continued segregation and containment, in often deplorable conditions, can thus be justified.

In effect, rendering migrants invisible enables a discourse to be constructed and maintained around the migrant left relatively unchallenged by a lack of evidence to the contrary. Segregation and control of information about migrants and how they suffer is also an effective governing technique, helping to dehumanise, facilitate indifference towards them and reduce acts of solidarity.

Hiding the Harm

With the policy of silence being legislated in Greece, under the General Operation Regulation, the Greek government is authorising an environment where the suffering of migrant remains unseen hidden from society. When suffering cannot be seen, when it is confined behind prison-like barriers, and when it is kept from public scrutiny by destroying camera footage, it is easier to dehumanise and to deny that human rights violations and other harms have occurred.

Efforts to hide the suffering enables dehumanisation and reduces the migrant to a number it enables them to be presented as someone who represents a danger, rather than someone who’s in danger.

In turn, this justifies entrapping migrants in deplorable camp conditions and, paradoxically, helps justify disinterest in the harms they suffered, thus allowing harms to continue under the shroud of silence.


Gordon, E. and Larsen, H.K. (2020) ‘Sea of Blood’: The Intended and Unintended Effects of the Criminalisation of Humanitarian Volunteers Rescuing Migrants in Distress at Sea’, Disasters. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/disa.12472.

About the Authors:

Henrik Kjellmo Larsenis a PhD candidate in The School of Social Science at Monash University. He spent four months as a field coordinator doing search and rescue on Lesvos in 2015 and has spent the last six years working in the field of criminalisation of humanitarian workers, security, global governance and human rights. His research, practise and field work focus on violent borderwork, human rights and mental health of emergent groups and spontaneous volunteers in disaster areas.

Eleanor Gordonis a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Development at Monash University. She spent 20 years working in the field of conflict, security, justice and human rights, including 10 years working in conflict-affected environments with the UN and other international organisations. Her research, teaching and practice focuses on inclusive approaches to building security and justice after conflict.


January 13, 2021

Harnessing Networks For Good

harnessing relations 2
Written by Prerna Aswani
Project Lead, inHive (prerna@inhiveglobal.org)

Networks are inherently complex. And increasingly, I can’t help but think that like social media, networks are a tool that can be used both for good and bad: networks can catapult positive social change, but also have complex power dynamics embedded within them. On one hand, they are by definition exclusionary: they are usually based on members having a shared characteristic or history that others do not. These types of affiliation can grow out of all sorts of shared traits or experiences, whether it be profession, religion or educational experiences. Yet networks, as forms of social organising and mobilising also have the power of giving voice to those who are repeatedly and institutionally unheard and marginalised. The current social, economic and political climate requires us to increase our investment in harnessing the power of networks for positive social disruption and to think more deeply about networks and inclusion.

Networks for social change

By being part of a larger group, collective or network, those from historically and institutionally marginalised communities can find a safe space to express themselves and connect with a community with whom they can resist oppression. Organisations and movements that create and strengthen networks for women and minorities have enabled these marginalised voices to be taken seriously.

I have seen first-hand how these dynamics emerge through the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Adalat (BMMA), a national mass organisation of Muslim women in India, who run centres to support women to resolve marital disputes. They provide members a sanctuary, as well as a route to tackle the multiple ways in which they have been oppressed.

Their oppressions are multifaceted and intertwined. As lower middle class women living in a highly patriarchal society, their marital grievances often go unheard both within the family and their wider communities. At the same time, as Muslim women, they belong to a minority religion in a country where family law is governed by religious tenets through Muslim Personal Law. This law enables matters of family and marriage to be legally governed by the Shariat.

Speaking to members in the Mumbai branch, they shared with me how on a personal level they felt empowered as a result of being part of this organisation, and that it has led to substantive change in their daily lives. By taking their marital disputes to the women’s centre run by BMMA, individual women have been able to negotiate a greater voice in their communities and families with the support of the collective. Furthermore, on a collective level, the BMMA has successfully advocated for women’s rights in national law by connecting with other organisations, movements and networks. They recently won a case in the Supreme Court of India to criminalise the practice of Triple Talak, where a Muslim man could legally divorce his wife by saying Talak (Divorce) three times.

The darker side of networks

The BMMA is just one example of where individuals who are marginalised along multiple identity lines come together not only to empower one another in navigate their personal challenges of marginalisation, but also effectively confront institutional discrimination.

Yet as we celebrate the power of networks that give rise to organisations, movements and other forms of collective action for their capacity to catalyse social and institutional change, we cannot ignore the ways in which networks can and have historically reinforced the unequal power structures that govern the world today. 'Old boys networks' are renowned for giving their members considerable advantages: job offers, business deals and other opportunities are unequally distributed within these networks, which by design exclude all but the upper echelons. These powerful networks are often affiliated with former pupils of elite schools and universities, hence the notorious reputation of alumni networks as elite and exclusionary.

My own work at inHive seeks in order to tackle this challenge, by democratising access to networks for young people who have traditionally not had access to them. Our work is one part of a much larger tradition of movements building and mobilising through networks. Yet it can’t be denied that on the whole, elite networks still wield the greatest social, economic and political capital. Networks of minorities and excluded groups absolutely develop a greater sense of empowerment for its members, but for the most part they tend to have lower levels of influence than established ‘old boys’ clubs’.

inHive networking Rwanda

inHive building Alumni Networks with Health Poverty Action in Rwanda

And even within networks, movements and other forms of organising of minorities and the oppressed, complex power dynamics exist. Consider for example various anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements, where often older elite men exercised their power to silence women. Despite their vital contributions to the joint efforts, women’s interests are often falsely presented as distracting in the fight against the main enemy, leading to their side-lining at best, and exploitation, abuse and violence at worst. These dynamics were present in the recent Rhodes Must Fall protests, when women, queer and trans people were leading the conceptualisations of the underlying tenets, but were pushed out of the organising roles and the protest frontline due to misogyny, and trans- and homophobia.

What Next?

The Black Lives Matter movement is a powerful show of how historically marginalised groups coming together to mobilise collective action can have a huge impact. The movement has actually served as an accelerator for alumni of hundreds of schools and universities campaigning to decolonise the curriculum, my own alma mater included. By creating networks across initiatives and causes, solidarities and synergies emerge to amplify calls for change.

The presence of minority networks is both an encouraging success and a sign that more work still needs to be done. Rather than separate networks of the elite and marginalised, we need to build connections and linkages that are based on equality, openness and active listening to enable social change. Unlike the old boys’ clubs that exist solely for the benefit of their members, we need to invest in more networks that commit to intersectional and social change.

Note: there are important distinctions between organisations advocating for social change, groups formed around certain causes and networks, and differing internal power dynamics within each. However, for the broad focus of this article around democratising these different types of structures for social change, I consider them in unison.

About the Author

Prerna is passionate about youth development, access and social mobility. She is a development consultant with a diverse set of experiences. Having spent her early career in economic consulting and then transitioned to the social sector, within the education and youth development space, she has experience of working with stakeholders across the private and third sectors.

December 15, 2020

COVID–19, Women and Water in Urban India

Oleg image Covid and water

(Image by Oleg Malyshev, 2016)

Written by Mansha Marwah

The first case of COVID-19 in India was reported on 30 January 2020 and a lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020. On 3 April 2020, the Central Government produced an advisory for the state governments: “Advisory for ensuring safe drinking water during lockdown and effective management of pandemic caused by Corona Virus”. This statement, however, does not reflect reality. India has the largest number of people in the world living with water scarcity- approximately one billion people. UNICEF and WHO data from 2017 illustrate that only 44 percent of India’s population has access to piped water. Additionally, those living in poverty, in informal settlements and rural populations, lack access to any clean water, which is essential for frequent hand washing to protect from, and prevent the spread of, COVID-19. For the majority in India, water of adequate quality and quantity is unavailable, intermittently available and/or inaccessible, rendering people in these situations particularly susceptible to infection.

Many households in India do not have access to water supply within their homes and often depend on shared sources of water. These are usually households in urban informal, low income and insecure housing areas. Residents here tend to deal with exacerbated stressors due to government neglect and a lack of proper infrastructure for basic amenities. An analysis of five of India’s most populous states, which accounted for 46% of all COVID-19 cases, as of June 10, found that in informal areas and poorer neighbourhoods, a lack of exclusive access to drinking water and distance to the source of water meant that proper hygiene and handwashinghabits were a challenge for households. These areas are usually densely populated so social distancing is hard, especially if residents share a water source. Hence, preventing theinfection also becomes a challenge. Due to the infrequent and intermittent supply of water, the household priority is often cooking food and drinking water, often at the expense of hand washing and other essential hygiene behaviours.

The experiences and effects of the pandemic affect women more harshly. Even though studies find that men are more vulnerable to losing their lives to the virus, women are disproportionately affected by its political, economic and social consequences. Instances of domestic violence across the globe are increasing, as has historically been the case in contexts of uncertainty.These women are moreover forced to continue with their everyday household labour and responsibilities while simultaneously dealing with this violence. The pandemic has highlighted the need for and value of this unpaid labour, termed by feminists as “social reproduction”.

Women bear the brunt of water scarcity simply because they are responsible for finding water for their family’s everyday needs. They are often the ones that have to stand in long lines to wait for water and walk long distances to collect it.Before the pandemic, a woman in Chennai described how her wait for water began at 4am in the dark, and how she spent her mornings looking for water and then rationing it for washing, bathing and cooking. A report from 2019 stated that Indian women on average spent 16 hours a day doing this kind of unpaid care work.

The need for this reproductive labour has increased during this pandemic especially due to the heightened demand for water in the household. “It’s been three days since the water tanker came to our area and, without, you can see that this place is a mess,” Kumudhashri R, a woman in Chennai was reported as saying. Since the lockdown was imposed, she has been locked at home with her family and complains, “Since everybody is at home now the demand for water is more, but what we are getting isn’t sufficient at all”. None of the 500 families on her street have access to piped water supply. The residents are completely dependent on the water tanker that comes to their area twice a week and they are not allowed to fill more than three pots per family. The women have been walking 3-5 kilometers daily to fetch more water. Less water makes cooking, cleaning and managing household health more difficult, responsibilities largely assigned to women. Much of the burden to reduce water use therefore falls on women, who have to carry out the same duties with fewer resources.

Water, along with other resources is unequally distributed in a household due to women’s lower status within family and society, and the perception of their labour being of less worth. This, along with the increased demand for water in the household might mean that many women are unable to meet everyday sanitation needs especially those related to menstrual hygiene. Even before the pandemic, women and girls in many parts of India struggled with menstrual hygiene, owing to a lack of clean water, a lack of access to safe menstrual hygiene products and taboos around menstruation. COVID-19 has intensified these struggles, illustrating another example of how it is disproportionately affecting women in India.

Moreover, the nationwide lockdown that restricts mobility would have had an adverse impact on unpaid care work carried out by women across the country as many would have been unable to move freely outside of their homes to, for instance, collect water. These women would have then been forced to break rules of social distancing in order to fulfill daily survival needs for their families, risking not only contracting the virus and their health but also, in some cases, state violence.

Women, in the context of this pandemic, are experiencing amplified responsibilities with regards to unpaid labour at home. These tasks such as fetching water or cooking are essential for the smooth functioning of a household. This dependence on women’s altruism shifts the responsibility of survival and maintaining the status quo during disasters and pandemics onto women, which often affects women negatively causing what has been termed as “depletion” of their health and general wellbeing. Holding women responsible for this survival obscures the role of the state in addressing issues and inequalities that lead to these issues in the first place.

The consequences of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting women in urban informal settlements in India. Due to the sexual division of labour, it is women who are responsible for carrying out daily household tasks that are essential for the reproduction of everyday life. These responsibilities have been exacerbated by the pandemic, resulting in potential mental and physical harm to women’s health and overall wellbeing. Care burdens must be shared both by men and women, not just in disasters and pandemics but in everyday life. This will need gender responsive policies targeting social and cultural change that help families adopt and adapt to a more equitable way of living. Moreover, strategies to mitigate effects of COVID-19 must take into account an analysis of gendered experiences.

With regards to water challenges, the government must immediately enact and implement enforceable policies and strategies on the provision of emergency water in all water-scarce areas for all people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to water should be available regardless of tenure or settlement status. In the long term, COVID-19 should act as a lesson and the government should strengthen infrastructure facilities to be able to provide access to clean, safe water for all. This will require sustained political commitment, increased budget allocations for health, and improved physical infrastructure.


The Warwick Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development addresses urgent problems of inequality and social, political and economic change on a global level.

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