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Beyond Vulnerability: Rethinking Humanitarian Governance and Interventions

In contemporary humanitarian regimes, refugees’ so-called “vulnerability” heavily shapes their access to protection, aid, shelter, or resettlement. “Vulnerability” markers such as bodily abilities, socio-economic circumstances, mental health, family situation, sexual orientation and gender identities therefore play a central role in humanitarian-refugee relations. Engaging in a conversation with Dr Lewis Turner and Dr Fadi Saleh, this lecture invites us to think beyond predominant humanitarian frameworks and seeks to formulate a radical critique of contemporary humanitarian politics.

Based on his ethnographic research on the Syria refugee response in Jordan, Lewis Turner will explore how humanitarian workers and organizations understand and operationalize the idea of ‘vulnerability.’ What does it mean – according to humanitarians – for refugees to be ‘vulnerable’? How do gender, race, and orientalism shape humanitarians’ views of who ‘deserves’ their assistance? In a context of huge need and limited resources, how do humanitarian organizations attempt to measure who is ‘vulnerable?’ And to what extent do humanitarians examine whether their understandings of ‘vulnerability’ are shared by the people they work with?

Drawing on his ethnographic research with Syrian LGBTIQ refugees in Istanbul, Turkey, Fadi Saleh further problematizes these questions by exploring the ways queerness and humanitarianism intersect and shape each other. He argues that Western humanitarian actors and discourses do not only impose very specific, Eurocentric notions of gender and sexuality for Syrian LGBTIQ refugees to be eligible for humanitarian support, but it also forces them to change, erase, or completely suppress any histories or lived experiences of being LGBTIQ Syrian that do not match their expectations. This dynamic is not only problematic when it comes to writing queer histories in the Global South, but also has far-reaching implications for the LGBTIQ refugees’ livelihoods and their chances of resettlement. In conclusion, Saleh will offer some insights into how we could intervene into such dynamics and transform the queer humanitarian work landscape to become more radically inclusive of and helpful for the very people it claims to protect.


Dr Lewis Turner is Lecturer in International Politics of Gender at Newcastle University, UK. He is a political ethnographer of humanitarianism in ‘the Middle East’ – particularly Jordan - and his work investigates questions of gender (especially men and masculinities), refugee recognition, vulnerability, labour market integration, and race and racism in humanitarianism. His research on the Syria refugee response has appeared in journals including Middle East Critique, Review of International Studies, and Social Politics, and has received prizes from professional associations including the British International Studies Association and the Political Studies Association. Currently, he is part of the ASILE Project, an EU Horizon2020 funded project investigating the interactions between emerging international protection systems and the United Nations Global Compact for Refugees. In this project, his research focuses on status, rights and vulnerability for those seeking international protection in Jordan.

Dr. Fadi Saleh is a queer anthropologist. In his research and teaching, he focuses on issues of queer and trans* migrations, asylum, and humanitarianism with particular attention to the UNHCR third-country resettlement program in the context of Syria/Turkey. Recently, he co-edited a special issue, together with Dr. Mengia Tschalaer, on “Queer Liberalisms and Marginal Mobilities”, which was published in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies. His work on Syrian LGBTIQ refugees in Turkey appeared in Middle East Critique and Transgender Studies Quarterly. Outside of academia, Saleh has worked in various activist, training, consultancy, and research capacities at different (LGBTIQ) NGOs, institutions, and initiatives. He has been the editor of the Syrian LGBTIQ Series on since 2020, and currently, he is the Program Officer for Queer Intersectional Political Education at the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung). Now that he changed careers and is not in academia anymore, he is doing his best to pretend that he does not miss academia, but he secretly does from time to time.


This lecture takes place on June 29th, 2023 from 16.00 to 18.00 CET.


Institut für Europäische Ethnologie - Room 211

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, (formerly M*Str.) Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Str. 40-41, 10117 Berlin