From the European South

a transdisciplinary journal of postcolonial humanities

Migration, rights, survival: the role of the humanities

Homi Bhabha


The article offers a reflection on the right to move and the need to create horizons of hope, in the context of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. It evokes conceptual and theoretical problems linked to the anguish and despair of migration, found in geopolitical scenarios such as the rubbish dumps of Zarsis, a coastal town on the Southeastern coast of Tunisia, which has become a beachhead for refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Bhabha focuses on examples of tropic language used to represent the loss of human rights and status of the Zarsis refugees: figures of speech that turn statelessness from a legal, political condition into an existential and ethical imperative. He argues that the language of tropes plays a heuristic role in diagnosing “black holes” or “blind spots” in political and legal discourses concerning the rights of migrants. Tropic language reveals a structure of disavowal that afflicts many traditions of policy-thinking that resort to physical barriers, like building walls and sealing borders, when what needs to be dealt with are existential, intersubjective dilemmas that emerge from the affective realm of ethical choice, psychic trauma, cultural subjectivity, the powers of tropic expression, and the paradoxes of personhood. The text is written in the interest of a humanistic philology and phenomenology of the migration crisis when the very act of survival suffers a close encounter with figures of death – loss, fear, risk, vulnerability, negation. The side-by-side proximity of death-life marks the everyday emergencies of our present history and severely tests humanistic critical thinking. At their best, the humanities work to restore the humanity of migrant men, women and children without rights; but the proximity of daily repetitions of death continues to put the method and courage of critical thinking to the test.


migration, refugee crisis, human rights, survival, death-life, risk, alterity, affect, tropic language, humanities



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