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Extractive Frontiers: Narratives and Discourses

(Im)mobility Economies: Extractivism of the Refugee as a Human Commodity

Économies de l’(im)mobilité : l’extractivisme du réfugié en tant que marchandise humaine
Economías de la (in)movilidad: El extractivismo de personas refugiadas como mercancía humana
Julia C. Morris


This chapter advances a resource extractive framework for understanding the expansion of extraction and capitalist activity into the governance of human mobility. I utilise a theoretical framework centred on resource extraction to argue that the figure of the refugee is entangled in extractive capitalism. Understanding the expansion of extractive industries into ‘frontiering’ practices requires attention to asylum as a form of governance, powered by a heavily racialised and liberal-positioned performative economy. Asylum is one means of entry across the hardened nation state borders of the current racialised global order. In putting forward an asylum claim, migrants (largely the Black and brown poor from the global South) must perform within a particular objectified narrative, making claims on their bodies to move between sovereign states. This performative dimension can allow for agency, but it is also a mode of subjectification that creates immense power imbalances, while profiting a vast industry of corporate, non-governmental, government, and other actors. Arguing that value is extracted from migrants as resources, I also probe the power of liberal-leftist representations, which help sustain this (im)mobility economy. Tropes of refugee suffering have gained popularity, leading to the fetishisation and durability of refugee extractivism, all while obscuring the massively consequential impacts of the industry. By moving outside of state and industry categorisations, we might better imagine alternative systems of free movement that go beyond adjudicating human worth and solidifying hierarchies of suffering.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 Pseudonyms are used throughout this chapter to maintain confidentiality.
  • 2 Currencies were converted using the exchange rate on 22 July 2022, when 1 AUD = USD 0.692782.
  • 3 As of writing, just over 100 migrants remained living in the country under refugee visas. However, (...)

1‘Each of us has a dollar sign on us. That’s how they see us. Just like commodities,’ Alexia sighed as we sat down at Nauru’s boat harbor.1 She kept a close eye on her children while they played in the water under the heat of the sun, but grew noticeably more frustrated as she described ‘the industry’ that she saw operating around refugees. ‘Without us, this country would go bankrupt again, and look at all these Australian companies contracted here. Do you know how much they’re getting? Multi-millions. And it’s only a few of us here.’ Alexia was not exaggerating. By the time I arrived to conduct my fieldwork in the small Pacific island nation of the Republic of Nauru in 2015, the Australian government had spent USD 314 million2 (AU$415 million) on its Nauru operations that fiscal year alone: almost USD 243,000 (AU$350,000) for each asylum seeker or refugee held on the island. Along with Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, Nauru was at that time the principal seat of the Australian government’s ‘regional processing arrangements’. As is the case with similar offshored and outsourced ‘frontiering’ arrangements worldwide, these offshoring operations play out along the fault lines of colonialism (Morris, 2021a). Nauru has a colonial history of phosphate extraction, when the island operated as a company town under the British Phosphate Commission and Australian administrative control (Williams and MacDonald, 1985). After a brief post-independence heyday of local phosphate boom wealth under the new government’s Republic of Nauru Phosphate Corporation (RONPhos), the island’s new-found billion-dollar economy crashed dramatically. Now, Nauru is neo-colonially restructured in line with processing and resettling refugees for Australian political and organisational profit (Morris, 2019a). On an on-and-off-again basis, anyone who makes their way by boat and claims asylum to Australia is automatically sent to Nauru or Manus for processing and indefinite resettlement.3

2Alexia was all too aware of the industry dynamics that made her subject to immense profiteering from zealous right-wing and liberal prospectors alike. She, like so many others I spoke with, trying to make their way from global South regions (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka) to Australia, was imbricated in the gruelling process of making her asylum claim. It was this labour-intensive process of making an asylum claim that entangled her and other migrants in the industry’s circuits of value. At that time in Nauru’s resource frontier, the Australian company Transfield Services held a USD 1.04 billion (AUD 1.5 billion) contract for refugee managerial provisions at the regional processing centres, or ‘RPCs’, over a period of three years; Save the Children had a contract of USD 25.4 million (AUD 36.7 million) for child welfare activities over one year, and another of USD 53.9 million (AUD 77.8 million) was held by Connect over two years: a consortium of a Melbourne and Brisbane-based NGO contracted into resettling migrants in Nauru. These contracts were not withstanding the immense array of international and Australian medical, legal, interpreting, security, food, goods, housing, construction and transportation contractors, coupled with the local land leasing and entrepreneurial practices, that pushed these human extractive operations into an almost USD 595,523 (AUD 860,000) a person a day industry. Many organisational names were familiar to me before arriving on the island, having already conducted extensive fieldwork into the industry that circulates around migrants and, I soon found, asylum seekers and refugees. In fact, a range of Australian and transnational non-governmental, intergovernmental and corporate providers were active in Nauru’s localised business operations, revealing quite how institutionalised the ‘refugee business’ (Franck, 2018) has become, ‘modulating’ (Appel, 2019) to new extractive sites in response to frontiering activity. By 2020, the Australian government had spent over USD 8.31 billion (AUD 12 billion) on Nauru and Manus as so-called third country resettlement sites since the operations restarted in 2012: industry ‘boomtowns’ flourishing on migrants as commodities. Yet, during my fieldwork, only 1,300 asylum seekers and refugees were living on the island: the maximum the country ever reached at one time. Nauru demonstrates the extent to which the realities of numbers are irrelevant to the accumulation of capital.

3This chapter explores the power that a resource extractive framework provides for understanding the expansion of extraction into ever-growing resource frontiers globally. It extends previous arguments I have made in relation to the Nauruan context (Morris, 2019a; 2019b) to consider the bio-economic dimension of refugee legal systems as an extractive practice. In my overall work, I advance a provocative framework centred on extractivism to argue that the figure of the refugee is entangled in extractive capitalism. My scholarship contributes to the debates advanced in this thematic volume by arguing that extractivism is a logic that pervades spheres beyond more typically thought of resource extractive sectors, such as mining. Moving beyond extraction, I see extractivism as an ideological construct, an analytical and political concept, connected to deep logics of exploitation and subjectification (Arboleda, 2020). Extractivism is not just defined by, as Mezzadra and Neilson (2017, 188) put it, the ‘forced removal of raw materials and life forms from the earth’s surface, depths, and biosphere’, but also by the opening of new frontiers and the urge to ‘find untapped substances to turn into commodities’. In examining the changing character of ‘hyper-extractivism’ (Watts, 2021) in the twenty-first century, I trace resource frontiers into forms of migrant extraction. Extractive processes are the forces that push many people to move from homeland regions. This includes massive land grabs, ecological destructions from mining, and the implementation of neo-colonial development programmes, all of which generate migrations (North and Grinspun, 2016; Sassen, 2016). But extractivism does not stop there. People are then subject to the extractive systems of legal technologies that track their movements across territories (Morris, 2019b; 2021a).

4Asylum seekers like Alexia discussed the grueling process of making an asylum claim with me. She―and others―described it as a form of dehumanising exploitative labour. She was required to recount intimate experiences and narratives of trauma in order to move elsewhere. What is extracted then is people’s vital energies, time, and material resources, all of which profit a vast industry of corporate, non-governmental, government, and other actors. Yet Nauru is not unique; rather, the island is simply microcosmic of extractive racial dynamics that I have noticed elsewhere (Morris, 2019a; 2021a). Nauru is worryingly symptomatic of the political penchant for Western governments, in particular, to outsource and offshore border enforcement on a global scale through all manner of blatantly repressive and humanitarian devices, including, but by no means limited to, border personnel training (Bialasiewicz, 2012), containment regimes and militarised border technologies (Besteman, 2020), development and conservation programmes (Kröger and Nygren, 2020) and the international refugee legal system (Morris, 2019b; 2021b).

5Over the last near decade, I have been tracking new fronts of extraction emerging related to human (im)mobility. This chapter draws on prolonged periods of fieldwork in two extractive ‘patches’ (Ferguson, 2006, 204)―Nauru and Jordan―to trace the connections between capitalist activity and expansive extractive logics in the domain of migration governance. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Australia, Switzerland, Fiji, and Nauru for a total of fifteen months between 2015 and 2016, and then in Jordan for three months across 2018–19. Certainly, these diverse geographical contexts have their own particularities. By bringing these sites together, I do gloss over many social, political, and economic specificities. But in so doing, my intention is to more expansively consider the global trend towards offshored and outsourced frontiering models as they zig-zag from global North to South (Besteman, 2020).

6I am certainly conscious of my role within the processes of extraction, also deriving capital from following zones of continual extractivism. In this regard, my methodological approach takes its inspiration from social scientists focused on addressing carceral logics (Davies et al., 2021). Drawing on the pioneering work of abolitionist activist-scholars like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, this approach focuses on advancing transformative changes by meaningfully engaging with the unequal distribution of power, rather than centring practices such as mass incarceration, policing, and borders as societal givens. By naming the asylum system as a form of extractive capitalism, I look to disrupt these forms of administrative governance over majority Black and brown poor migrant populations. Through this analysis, I hope to offer analytically useful conceptualisations of human extractive frontiers in socio-spatially broader areas, even as I play a role in extractive industries.

7This chapter proceeds in three parts. The first section lays out my theoretical framework in conversation with work on the migration industry and on new bio-economies that sees commodities not as reified ‘things’―or indeed people as innately ‘refugees’―but as brought into being by social relations. I ask what it means to understand refugees as commodities in a context where people’s own labour power is directed towards asserting themselves as refugees. The second section draws on my fieldwork in Jordan to reveal the expanding webs of infrastructure, labour, and activist struggle that drive new resource-based industries in the twenty-first century. In the final section, I argue that forms of pro-refugee activism and cultural practices, such as images, media, and other productions, work to harden the refugee economy. When examined closely, calls for rescue and welcome contribute to―rather than disrupt―these new extractive arrangements and the colonial relations of power that undergird them. The push to circulate migrants to offshored and outsourced sites raises questions about how these economies come to be advanced and enacted and, importantly, how they are challenged and continuously reopened again.

2. The Economies of (Im)mobility

8Frontier expansions around human extractive regimes can be powerfully examined through political economic approaches. Recent scholarship in critical migration studies unpacks the political and economic profit extracted from migrants by a spectrum of institutional actors (Andersson, 2018; Coddington et al., 2020; Gammeltoft-Hansen and Sørensen, 2013). From the symbolic purchase of discourses of ‘illegality’ (De Genova ,2013) to lucrative organisational contracts (McGuirk and Pine, 2020) and the feel-good value of ‘missionary-esque’ altruism (Morris, 2022), a range of state and non-state actors have a stake in the governance of migration. Borders are, Mezzadra and Neilson (2013) point out, at the very heart of global capitalism. Global capitalism rests upon exploited labour within which practices of border-making and maintenance are a crucial part of producing labour power as a commodity (Rajaram, 2018; Samaddar, 2020). Populations are put to work as a reserve army of informal low-wage labour to support global supply chains of commodities, such as in construction labour (Kathiravelu, 2016), the care and entertainment industries (Cheng, 2010) and forms of entrepreneurship (Bhagat, 2020).

9But while border practices are well recognised as significant to current ruling relations, understandings of this exploitation all too often rely upon caricatures of passive workers. Indeed, much of the migration industry focus still distances migrants from the institutionalised governance industry through theories of abjection: as ‘wasted’ (Bauman, 2004) or ‘expelled’ populations rendered irrelevant and invisible (Sassen, 2014). Racialised migrants are framed as displaced victims who are subject to immense ‘profit and predation’ (Andersson, 2018). Even as scholars critique state institutional classifications, such as the ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’, many still utilise them to make normative claims about intrinsic suffering and the overall benevolence of the international refugee system. So too, the process of making an asylum claim is not taken to be a form of intimate labour in its own right, one that contributes to value generation. Yet, as I see it, migrants, as racialised refugee bodies in capitalism, are not only pushed ‘to turn themselves into productive members of society – through employment or entrepreneurship – in order to survive’ (Bhagat, 2020, 3). They are also entangled in the intimate labour of making an asylum claim. The process of appropriating people’s bodies depends increasingly on individuals’ personal capacities to adjust their emotions and concepts of self, body and intimacy to the rationalities of the market. Poor migrants of colour are encouraged to subordinate themselves through an ‘embodied performance of trauma’ (Pine, 2020, 212), while the white subject is presented as empathetic, caring and good, offering ‘protection’ to the stranger (Danewid, 2017).

10Yet despite mounting criticism in other fields relating to bodily substances (Scheper-Hughes and Wacquant, 2002; Vora, 2015) and intimate labour (Mahdavi, 2011), the international refugee regime is remarkably resistant to challenge. Migrants advancing or having received asylum claims are still taken to be outside the industry in terms of the biopolitical function of their labour power. Debates around extraction are usually limited to the generation of migration, not to the extractivist logics that incorporate migrants into―and pervade―migration governance systems, such as asylum. A major difficulty in making these arguments is that many critics and publics have uncomfortable, mixed feelings in approaching people―saturated by morally charged representations―as commodities. Those who object to the idea of refugee commodification do so because it ‘implicitly includes a type of objectification; converting something or someone into a good that can be traded’ (Hofmann and Moreno, 2016, 7). It is thus not the commodifying argument per se that provokes the objections, but the uncomfortable realities of how people are objectified, and at times utilise objectifying discourses themselves. My intention here is to flag up how people are treated―and indeed traded―as objects in a capitalist market system in highly demeaning and intimately extractive ways. Extractivism as an analytical category then captures not just the processes that push people to move (Sassen, 2014; Stefoni Espinoza et al., 2021), but also the institutional assemblage that extracts value from those migration pathways.

11Anthropologists have long pointed out the myriad cultural settings in which ‘the human body and its parts’ are targets for commodification (Sharp, 2000). In the context I will go on to describe, migrants are pushed to translate their body power into valorised labour through forms of ‘refugee performativity’ (Häkli et al., 2017). These forms of refugee embodiment are harnessed to the marketplace and profitability for migrants and workforces alike. Organisations receive large contracts for all aspects of the asylum process, exerting forms of control and rule over people’s lives (Morris, 2021b). Meanwhile, terms such as ‘refugee economies’ (Betts et al., 2017) are entering into normative vocabulary, tying migrant use to capitalist extraction. Refugees are also traded around the world for their geopolitical utility and, at times, financial currency. In mainstream economics, this tradability in a capitalist market is known as ‘fungibility’. It is a crucial characteristic of commodities in a capitalist sense: a form of market value that Kelberer (2017) describes in this context as ‘refugee rentierism’. States leverage their position as host states of displaced communities, extracting revenue from other states for maintaining migrant groups within their borders on the basis of ascribing prices to refugee bodies (Morris, 2020).

12Migrants are also subject to an immense moral economy where ‘exchange is not motivated by profit, but by an identification with abstract moral values’ (Erevelles, 2001, 8), such as philanthropy and civil society galvanised by white empathy discourses of #RefugeesWelcome (Picozza, 2021). In turn, these discourses are entangled in migrant desires for mobility and consumption (Cabot, 2013). People potentialise the logic of commodity in their self-appreciation as capital in ways that are related to their labour power and fulfilling their onwards goals. The performative and ethical dimensions here constitute the fetishistic power of refugees, in particular, as commodities. As Marx described, fetishism is about concealing production relations, but also about permeating products with an objectified mystical dimension. In their particular imaginings, #RefugeesWelcome movements and migrant practices may deepen this mystical character through a ‘refetishization’ (Adams and Raisborough, 2008). By grounding the shifts towards migrant extractivism in the operations of capital, we might better understand the enormity of this planetary phenomena and the violence it produces.

13In addition to objectification, another major concern around the commodification framework is that it appears to discount the very real violence that many migrants might have experienced. By saying that migrants are performing demeaning identities, my critique of the international refugee system could be misinterpreted as questioning the authenticity of people’s experiences. This is by no means my intention, and making these arguments is not to claim that migrants are not suffering. Rather, it is to say that asylum is one means of entry across the hardened nation state borders of the current racialised global order. In putting forward an asylum claim, migrants (largely the Black and brown poor from the global South) must perform within a particular objectified narrative, making claims on their bodies to move between sovereign states. Here, I draw on Miriam Ticktin’s (2006) work in understanding the consequences of a new ‘biosocial’ space that pushes people towards drawing on their biology as a resource for mobility. Alongside these concerns, it might be said that in emphasising the inequalities of this governance regime I may undermine a key legal mechanism that many have benefited from in decades past to the present day. I do so with the understanding that the international refugee regime is inherently problematic. I want to challenge and pull back the veil of mystification regarding asylum as benevolent and the racist, capitalist, classist, sexist, misogynist systems that place demands and regulations on certain bodies to bring their suffering to bear in order to move elsewhere. The focus on hierarchies of suffering strengthens a ‘victim-villain binary’ (Pupavac, 2008) that forestalls critical reconsiderations of free movement across borders, and creates human divisions in the process. This ‘technology of antirelationality’ is, Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2002, 261) points out, intrinsic to racial capitalism. Collective life in humanity is ‘partitioned’ and then ‘interconnected’ in ways that feed capital and wealth.

14The next section draws on my fieldwork in Jordan, almost 14,000 kilometres away from Nauru, to consider asylum as a hyper-extractive system. Moving towards an understanding of the expansion of extraction into spheres of human activity also requires recognising the complications of the performative dynamics of this industry, an aspect that my previous work has not adequately captured. But while accounting for individual agency in ‘reshaping and refusing dominant images of deservingness, victimhood, and vulnerability’ (Cabot, 2013, 453), the bodily dissemination of sociolegal terminologies and processes can ensure that extractive activities continue unhindered.

3. Jordan: Asylum as a Hyper-extractive System

15I am at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) registration centre in Amman. A dusty waiting room is packed with new Syrian arrivals to the Jordanian capital. Individuals, friends, couples, families, young and old, mingle about. Some wear T-shirts and jeans, but many are also in kaftans and abayas marked in distinctive traditional patterns specific to far-flung rural regions. They are unable to afford the freedom of movement that has seen the wealthy Syrian elite more easily migrate on a global scale. Instead, many patiently wait to register as asylum seekers with UNHCR. Others await their refugee status determination (RSD) interviews to decide whether they are formally classified as refugees and could potentially apply for residency elsewhere. Many of the latter clutch folders filled to the brim with the countless documents they require to prove the authenticity of their persecution, and eligibility to move from their home regions. Some have told me that this complicated and drawn-out process involved months, if not years, of painstaking work. Collating documents from bygone pasts, calling family and friends that might remain, combines with the often re-traumatising effect of rehearsing one’s life stories prior to arrival in Amman. The technical and labour-intensive process of ‘asylum labour’ means locating verifiable proof that your residence was subject to devastation, medical reports documenting physical and mental health distress, evidence of past employment showing you to be a target of Syrian state violence, to proof of sexuality that might substantiate your maltreatment in the country. These forms of intimate extraction are undeniably invasive and form part of the labour-intensive process of claiming asylum (Harper et al., 2015).

16Specialised methods of intimate extraction require increasingly specialised labour. The side rooms that splinter off from the main waiting room are all staffed by international and Jordanian UNHCR officials who consider the credibility of each applicant in detail: a model that I have likened elsewhere to ‘assembly line’ assessment practices (Morris, 2019b) premised on, as Anna Tsing (2013, 21) describes with familiar capitalist commodities, ‘creating commodity value from non-capitalist value forms’. In asylum adjudication, migrants are sieved out as ‘worthy’ from ‘unworthy’ based on being ‘sorted’ and ‘regraded’ as a ‘refugee’ or not. As a result, migrants must utilise gendered, racialised, and class-based discourses to produce ‘pictures’ of lives eligible for protection that fit templates of victimhood and vulnerability (Cabot, 2013). ‘Trauma’, writes Adrienne Pine (2020, 211), ‘only has value in the asylum industry […] if it’s the right kind of trauma’. How asylum applicants dress, how they comport themselves, their overall appearance are all stereotyped assumptions that are taken to signal possible victimhood. When summoned to perform their life histories in the asylum interview, many migrants actively strive to meet their audiences’ expectations. This performance of ‘idealized refugeeness’ (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2014) resonates with what Giddens (1991) famously described as the ‘commodification of self’. In late modernity, Giddens argues, personal lives are, to a greater or lesser degree, reorganised on the model of market relations. He writes how the ‘narrative of the self’ is ‘constructed in circumstances in which personal appropriation is influenced by standardized influences on consumption’ (201). Knowing how to act and represent oneself is a mediated process, under the influence of sources such as images in advertising and media entertainment, which act as ‘substitutes for real satisfactions unobtainable in normal social conditions’ (199). The consumptive influences Giddens describes are clear here when set against discussions of NGO moral economies and the political economic utility of ‘the refugee’. Suffering itself is commodified (Kleinman and Kleinman, 1996), but also reworked for strategic ends (Cabot, 2013). In this sense, self-definition depends on personally branding oneself to meet the demands of the marketplace.

17I discussed this with Imran, a younger Syrian man from Idlib, working on the front desk at my hotel. He was interested in my research and keen to talk about his asylum legal experience. Over coffee downtown, Imran and his friend Georg, also from the same heavily bombed northern Syrian region, both in their mid-twenties, described their experiences to me. Highly fluent in the refugee legal system, Imran and Georg were well aware of how to meet the demands of the asylum performative context, describing it together jokingly, yet with conviction, as a form of ‘self-marketing’. Imran commented that he knew from conversations with friends of his who had been through the system, as well as NGO workers, and his own online media and legal aid website research, that ‘tears were very helpful’. He continued, ‘I was told make sure you at least shed a tear in your interview’. Imran’s life history was meticulously planned out and, he shared, part of his success. ‘I thought about it like writing and acting out a story. A sort of fictionalised account of my life, like if I was working with a movie director and wanted to shock the audience through some of those techniques they use’.

18The ‘techniques’ that Imran describes are the narrative conventions of asylum, which include incorporating such emotionally charged aspects as tropes of violence and flight (Malkki, 1995). This is not to imply that Imran is somehow not a ‘real refugee’, but reveals the intensive work that he and other applicants had to put into becoming recognisable as such. Certainly, each person’s narrative might reflect some of these broadly shared experiences. However, asylum applicants must figure out how to present their experiences in a compelling manner resonant with the cinematic account that Imran describes. In fact, not just Imran and Georg, but other asylum applicants also told me how they polished their life histories to meet racialised arcs of white salvation: a European promise of winning a universal crusade against a regressive Orientalised and transhistorical Taliban barbarism. These forms of self-representation invoked normative ideas of race, class, and gender within the overarching narrative of fleeing Taliban persecution for the safety and protection of the liberal democratic core. They all form part of the work of presenting―and often strategically degrading―oneself as worthy of capitalist state insertion within notions of civility, wealth, and Europeanness (Cabot, 2013). In this sense, it is not only explicitly commercial practices that have interpenetrated the lifeworld and selfhood, but also the predictable attributes about ‘who a refugee is’ (Shacknove, 1985), which are ‘floated’ onto the public marketplace, and reworked by individuals for their restricted mobility goals.

  • 4 The division of people into ‘low-skilled’ and ‘high-skilled’ workers is immensely problematic. Such (...)

19This is the system of ‘unfree labour’ whereby poor brown and Black migrants from the global South, in particular, are channelled into making an asylum claim in order to move elsewhere. Imran and Georg were both of a lower socio-economic status, and unable to afford the time and expense of finishing their high school education, instead entering straight into apprenticeship professions. Unlike those of the mobile elite class, and without the sponsorship of a foreign employer, their abilities to move from Syria were restricted to the demeaning process of proving their suffering by making asylum claims. Aihwa Ong (1999, 58) describes this differential access to mobility as ‘graduated sovereignty’, whereby racialised segments of the population are differentially governed according to how they relate or do not relate to global markets, ‘and in the process assigned different social fates’. These forms of differential mobility governance were certainly the case with Imran and Georg, whereby their devaluation as ‘low-skilled’ and ‘low-income’ workers restricted their freedom to move.4

20Yet, Imran and Georg were by no means disposable populations, not ‘relevant’ to global markets. Rather, their alleged ‘disposability’ brought them into the folds of capital accumulation in their struggle to survive. In fact, it is through the unfree and precarious employment relations of the asylum system that state and non-state actors alike ensure levels of profitability. The refugee industry relies on migrants making asylum claims, while state and organisational modes of investment profit from suspending people in conditions of precarity (Coddington et al., 2020). But in the process, migrants are subject to the ‘precaritization of labor and life’ (Allison, 2013, 7) symptomatic of forms of unfreedom, as they make their asylum claims. Imran and Georg described the limitations on their abilities to work during this time, outside of working on their asylum claims. While under the asylum process, they were barred from formal employment, and instead cobbled together cash-in-hand jobs coupled with piecemeal NGO support in order to survive. Their exploited labour as asylum claimants and low-wage ‘illegal’ workers made them subject to multiple modes of accumulation.

Jordan: A Resource Boom Frontier

21The effects of these industry investments are unmistakable as Jordan is identified as a resource frontier region. As Syrian migrants are harnessed to the marketplace and profitability, organisations have mushroomed across Amman to provide all aspects of humanitarian care within the refugee and wider market economy, in much the same way as I found in Nauru. Local coffee shops are filled with humanitarian aid workers; researchers, such as myself, fly in-and-out of this new extractive frontier, as the (im)mobility of people enables the mobility of others. Local organisations that once focused on quite different priorities segue towards the new human resource boom. Many NGO heavyweights in Jordan focused on the great Syrian commodity boom hold benchmark quotas for the number of Syrian refugees they match to local employment: part of the economic metrics tied to a new human commodity (Morris, 2020). In exchange for employing targeted numbers of Syrian refugees in various industry sectors (agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and so forth), the Jordanian government received humanitarian and development funding and concessional loans of USD 1.9 billion, and the opening up of tariff-free trade in the European market to Jordanian goods.

  • 5 Time, place, and context all strongly influence who is determined to be a refugee; often relating t (...)
  • 6 Although I did not directly meet anyone who had done this, I heard numerous anecdotal reports of mi (...)

22Yet, in the process of this resource grab, the economic ‘worthiness’ assigned to Syrian refugees also leads to the exclusion of non-Syrian migrants.5 Because of these prerogatives, many migrants, in particular those from Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, who also have their own backgrounds of terrifying experiences, are unable to access the same levels of socio-economic support. Some are subject to increased violence, and events include the shooting of a Sudanese man in Amman’s Ashrafiyeh neighbourhood in October 2014: part of a string of violent acts targeting African refugees, which go unreported (Verduijn and Al Majali, 2020). So too, regional migrants seeking economic stability, predominately from Egypt, who depend on daily work in Jordanian construction, farming, retail and the restaurant industry, are also sidelined in favour of the boom sector centred on Syrian refugees. As a result, such forms of refugee fetishisation create racialised, classed, and ethnic divisions centred on the monopolisation of resources.6 Meanwhile, many of the Syrian asylum applicants I spoke with will be unable to move beyond Jordan, even with their refugee status. Instead, they are explicitly entangled in the structural impediments of the wider (im)mobility economy and its spectacular modes of accumulation. They are made commercially viable as a low-wage exploitable labour force benefiting local and global economies, while also hardening the conceptual frontiers of the EU through the spectacle of borders (De Genova, 2013). In effect, racialised peoples simultaneously facilitate capital accumulation through their labour and their representation as racialised ‘risky’ or ‘at risk’ bodies (Gray and Franck, 2019).

23Imran was lucky, he told me, more so than friends of his, who were only able to find work in manufacturing plants on the fringes of the city as part of the Jordanian government’s limitations on employment sectors (see Morris (2020)). He was well aware that his hotel work―his immobilised labour of hospitality (Duncan et al., 2013)―tied him into mobile global tourism, and more specifically once again, the humanitarian industry, much of which came in the scramble for the human extractive boom. Migrants such as Imran may be physically excluded from European and western shores, but they are by no means outside of global spheres of production and consumption. Rather, contemporary consumer cultures are directly connected to the wealth generated by frontier regimes, one premised on their low-wage labour and their bodily currency. However, Imran had by no means lost control of his labour power. Rather, he navigated the forms of value extracted from his refugee figuration to further his own mobility agenda. As an accomplished tailor who had previously owned his own business, working in a hotel was not high on Imran’s list of priorities. But, without the sponsorship of a local employer, owning his own business was out of the question: an explicit stipulation of Jordanian labour laws. Imran remained upbeat though and stressed to me that at least he had employment thanks to the drive the employ Syrian refugees. Moreover, it was a respectable hotel chain and the work covered his living expenses and might mean one day that he could utilise the transferable skills to access a more exciting position elsewhere. While he all too clearly felt his imbrication in the (im)mobility economy, performing within supply chains was an important strategy of securing onward goals.

24It is not only goods and commodified labour that circulate in the global economy, but also the consumption of suffering of distant others. The final section of this chapter zooms back out to global liberal advocacy movements focused on ‘welcoming refugees’. Although well meaning in their attempts, pro-refugee activism is also part of the ‘hyper-extractive assemblage’ (Watts, 2021) premised on continued racial subordination. Simultaneously, campaigns centred on white hospitality and rescue are strategically manipulated by migrants, who draw on the idiom of international organisations for their tremendous profit potential. Yet in the process, these forms of self-representation bolster an extractive system premised on exclusion and exploitation and the boom sector of (im)mobility economies.

4. Conclusions: #RefugeesWelcome and Hyper-Extraction

  • 7 Ukrainian citizens are eligible for temporary protection in any EU country, including the right to (...)

25The summer of 2021 brought an inordinate humanitarian #RefugeesWelcome push. The high-profile Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and large-scale movements of Haitian and Central American migrants to the Mexican-Texan border spurred on humanitarian groups and their allies to galvanise campaigns in empathy and solidarity with ‘refugees’. In fact, over the last decade activism campaigns led by organisational representatives, scholars, artists, politicians and migrants have relied on the left-liberal and multicultural #RefugeesWelcome framing. Stock images of poor Black and brown migrants in excruciating pain and desperation bombard Western publics on a perennial basis. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, humanitarian depictions of ‘white like us’ Europeans galvanised the European Union and global publics in solidarity.7 Racialised migrants are alternatively cast as threats or objects of sympathy or through an affinity based on whiteness, whereby national boundaries are constantly defined through a racialised politics. From the women like Alexia to the young men like Imran and Georg, migrants are presented―and at times present themselves―as fleeing the suffering of despotic third-world regimes for the salvation of democracy and global North protectionism. Their diverse stories are plastered together under generalised representations of third-world suffering that see majority white western nations positioned as havens of democracy, liberty, and universal rights.

26Critical political economists call attention to the linkages between Northern consumption practices and livelihoods elsewhere as part of extractive operations (Pickren, 2014). Colonial countries benefited disproportionately from wealth accumulation, transforming regions into purveyors of raw materials and cheap labour, and facilitating massive out-migrations. Dramatic #RefugeesWelcome campaigns reveal the practices of consumption through which value is continuously extracted from racialised migrants as a renewable resource. Liberal human rights discourses centred on rescue narrative sentiments are heavily implicated in the cyclical production of migration (Morris, 2019a). Left liberal responses bolster the authority of the international refugee system, while simultaneously justifying all manner of Western military interventions premised on liberation from barbaric regimes, which in turn pushes more people to migrate. In recognising these circuits of consumption, it becomes evident how the work of activists and social movements is crucial to the constitution of raced markets in the trade, production, and consumption of migrants.

27Applying an extractivism lens―drawing on the terminologies of the extractive mining industries―starkly captures the extent of global capital in human (im)mobility economies. Migrants are not expelled or pushed out to society’s margins. Rather, people are made valuable to the global political economy. The fetishised figure of the refugee has well solidified with the explosive growth of the humanitarian industry, where organisations and individuals extract value from suffering refugee Others. The matter thus becomes not one of protecting people per se. Indeed, scanty support and suspension as dependent and impoverished subjects is what many asylum recipients actually do face in global North regions (Morris, 2021b). Migrants within the asylum system are often reliant on meagre welfare handouts, limited employment, haphazard social housing, and patronising NGO programming as ‘social difference, legal categories, and destitution come together to make [populations] valuable to contractors and states in specific ways’ (Coddington et al., 2020, 1429). Instead, the matter becomes one of extracting moral value that ‘sanctions a white(washed) sense of self and satisfied way of being in the world’ (Danewid, 2017, 1681). People are reduced to objects with their meaning connected to marketability and feel-good philanthropy, perpetuating racial capitalism’s logics and sustaining racial injustice through what Jodi Melamed (2011) calls ‘race-liberal orders’. The concept of extractive logics thus helps us understand how people are reduced to profit, even through liberal international legal orders.

28The resistances to recognising commodification are no clearer than in the refugee industry. As scholars have shown more broadly in extractive industries (Huber, 2013), the entwinement of grassroots culture and political power signals just how integral the refugee is to the global cultural imagination, shaping contemporary ways of being and of imagining acceptable movement across borders. The obstacles become even greater when migrants are being pushed to identify as refugees and to perform what Liisa Malkki (1995) has referred to as ‘refugeeness’ in order to legalise their movement across borders. In fact, the performative demands particular to this form of intimate extraction make it difficult to demystify the social relations that go into the violent production of refugees. It is challenging to separate migrants from the products of their labour when it is an activity of production premised on translating oneself towards market demands. Yet unlike Marx’s model of alienation, whereby workers lose control over the production process, many migrants interact and perform within consumer culture to construct new identities compatible with absorbing societies, and as tools for social, cultural, and political mobility. While the status of ‘refugee’ places one in imbalanced power relations, these legal structures also allow for some degree of political power at times because of representations of vulnerability. Performing oneself as a refugee and rejecting one’s position as ‘illegal’ by making an asylum claim ‘operates as both a mode of subjectification and as a site of active resistance’ (McNevin, 2011, 2). It enables new kinds of organising, even as these forms of self-capitalisation and subjectification can create immense power imbalances and divisions between populations.

29Examining the asylum and refugee industry in Jordan or Nauru hardly captures the enormity of this form of frontiering across the globe, or the larger cosmos of which it is part. The last decade and a half have seen a dramatic increase in the outsourcing and offshoring of asylum processing and resettlement to developing countries. The US has adopted these operations in Central America, using regional asylum seekers and refugees to fuel the Guatemalan government’s economy (Morris, forthcoming). This is similarly the case with the EU in Eastern Europe, Turkey, North Africa, and Central Asia, and the UK’s recent arrangement with Rwanda (Achtnich, 2021). So too, Australia uses migrants as a form of economic development with Pacific island nations and across South Asia (Morris, 2019a). Many of the regions where western countries have financed border enforcement projects exhibit continuities from histories of colonial resource extraction through to the extractive projects of the contemporary era (Morris, 2021a).

30How then might we disrupt these models of perennial extractivism? A more productive approach is to ask how we can move towards a collective flourishing where people have the freedom to live, love, and work where they choose. This is by no means utopic, but can be directly accomplished by attention to representation and social justice goals. We can move towards using a more egalitarian language of solidarity, coalitions, and commonality, rather than one of suffering, salvation, and #RefugeesWelcome valuation. A first step is to see the international refugee regime as an extractive process; from there we can choose to collectively shift our attention to amplify future analyses and responses.

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1 Pseudonyms are used throughout this chapter to maintain confidentiality.

2 Currencies were converted using the exchange rate on 22 July 2022, when 1 AUD = USD 0.692782.

3 As of writing, just over 100 migrants remained living in the country under refugee visas. However, Nauru continues to be financed by the Australian government with the understanding that this operation might be restarted in the future.

4 The division of people into ‘low-skilled’ and ‘high-skilled’ workers is immensely problematic. Such binaries all too often map neatly onto race as a way to legitimise lower wages, more intense schedules, and institutional segregation, and a never-ending low-wage exploitable labour force (Appel, 2019).

5 Time, place, and context all strongly influence who is determined to be a refugee; often relating to the geopolitical zeitgeist (Morris, 2021b), illustrating how valuation varies over time and space, and is situated in particular sociocultural contexts.

6 Although I did not directly meet anyone who had done this, I heard numerous anecdotal reports of migrants adopting a Syrian identity in the hope that they could receive residency and work permits in Jordan or ultimately in European countries.

7 Ukrainian citizens are eligible for temporary protection in any EU country, including the right to work, housing, healthcare, and education for children. These efforts are certainly to be applauded; however, they operate in stark contrast to the border regimes experienced by migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Reports also detail how Black and Asian Ukrainian citizens and long-term residents have experienced overwhelming discrimination (Bajaj and Stanford, 2022). Overall, though, Ukraine is still denied access to the European Union, which Ivan Kalmar (2022, 248) argues is symptomatic of a racialised West-to-East axis where each nation is ‘deemed more white than the next’.

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Cite this article

Electronic reference

Julia C. Morris, (Im)mobility Economies: Extractivism of the Refugee as a Human CommodityInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 15.1 | 2023, Online since 02 May 2023, connection on 06 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Julia C. Morris

Julia C. Morris is assistant professor of International Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is a political anthropologist and migration studies scholar whose research focuses on the commodification of human mobility. Her work examines the postcolonial overlaps of resource extractive sectors centred on migrants and commodities, extending to an upcoming project on conservation strategies in frontier development. Her book Asylum and Extraction in the Republic of Nauru is forthcoming with Cornell University Press.

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