Intervention – “On the Function of ‘Crisis’ for Stateless Rohingya”

Patrick DeSutter, 2019-2020 Malini Chowdhury Fellow in Bangladesh Studies, University of California, Berkeley;

On 5 September, the Bangladesh military escorted a group of 40 Rohingya leaders on a trip to “inspect” Bhasan Char, beginning the process of relocating more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a small, man-made silt island in the Bay of Bengal. I hope in this Intervention to bring attention to this issue as well as to begin to think through the theoretical and political stakes of the health-humanitarian-climate nexus – a discursive conjunction which is bound to be increasingly prevalent in the Anthropocene. My starting point is the concept of “crisis” and the implications of that term’s ubiquity in contemporary discourse.

Like other “stateless” people, the Rohingya are a living symbol of the failure of the international political system of nation-states to faithfully describe the actual world. It is significant, in this respect, that the crisis is not generally referred to as the “Myanmar crisis”, but as the “Rohingya crisis”, suggesting that the Rohingya themselves constitute the problem. This designation suggests that the crisis exists not in the violence and dispossession experienced by the Rohingya, but in the fact that certain events have forced an unmarked “us” to contend with the question of what ought to be done with the refugees, who suddenly demand our attention and resources. An immense amount of work in the social sciences and philosophy has already been devoted to the tension between the universal category implied by human rights on the one hand, and the particular category of the nation on the other. But the specificity of the Rohingya crisis cannot be apprehended simply as a failure of the post-1945 political order.

Paying attention to the concept of crisis and its effects makes a nation-state-oriented conceptualization of stateless peoples inadequate, because the concept of crisis is everywhere. Joe Masco (2017: S65) defines crisis as “an affect-generating idiom” which “seeks to mobilize radical endangerment to foment collective attention and action”. Janet Roitman (2014: 2) has rightly argued that crisis is “the most common and most pervasive qualifier of contemporary historical conditions”, leading to a paradoxical “state of enduring crisis”. The affective politics of crisis in which all problems are denominated in “crisis” justifies drastic, emergency actions and blurs boundaries between issues which become combinable, comparable, and hierarchizable. In the context of Bangladesh, I am interested in the way that the crisis concept fuses the discourses of humanitarianism and the environment, and the security strategies and technologies that emerge from their conjunction.

The coincidence of humanitarian-refugee discourse with anthropogenic-environmental discourse makes possible various hybrid security mechanisms. One of these mechanisms is the ongoing plan to relocate some 100,000 refugees from the Kutupalong camp near Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char, a small silt island in the Bay of Bengal. Bhasan Char is roughly 30 km from the coast due west of Chittagong. Until quite recently, it was not an island at all, but more of a sandbar that was above the surface only at certain times of the year. Since the so-called refugee crisis began, the Bangladesh government – along with Chinese state-owned engineering firm Sinohydro, British environmental engineering firm HR Wallingford, and other institutions – has worked to stabilize the island and make it safe and habitable. They built a three-meter-high embankment (soon to be raised to seven meters) to protect against storm surges; they built a wave-break ringing the entire island in order to protect against erosion. There are plans to install an especially sophisticated drainage system using technology developed in Singapore. Nevertheless, it is far from clear that they have made the island safe for habitation. Following a recent visit, the UN Special Rapporteur questioned “whether the island is truly habitable”. She urged the government not to relocate refugees without further study, expressing her worry that it could create “a new crisis” (Adams 2019). The Bhasan Char plan has provided a site to practice and experiment with climate adaptation technologies, while offering the prospect of a seemingly easy solution to the Rohingya crisis. But even if these technologies succeed in making Bhasan Char habitable, the refugees that volunteer to move – or those that are forcibly relocated – will find themselves on what amounts to a floating prison.

Theoretically, this situation raises three questions. First, is the question of the relationship between the state or nation and the natural environment. Classic political theories more-or-less unanimously took for granted the stability of the Earth-system as a background for human political relationships. We might say that these systems were not understood to be in communication, whereas today, crisis acts as a kind of conceptual technology linking state to environment and vice versa. Even political theories that insist on the significance of territory or particular geographies – from Hegel to Schmitt – take those formations as independent variables, as it were. Schmitt (2006: 42) argued that the Earth contains an “inner measure”, which naturally divides human groups into political communities based on concrete, unique “forms of life”. Thus, Schmitt recognized the historically-specific nature of the system of nation-states, and its integral relationship with the technological capabilities of dividing and traversing space. But notice the way that Schmitt’s thesis of land containing an “inner measure” is transformed in the Anthropocene context, as evidenced by Bhasan Char. Schmitt’s political anthropology theorized firm land providing the basis for distinct, territorially-delimited human communities. In the Anthropocene, land itself is tenuous, while the political communities, which emerged at specific historical moments with concrete technological relationships to territory, lose their concreteness and become transcendent identity groups. When land is understood to be tenuous but identities are not, it might make sense in a crisis situation to make more land, rather than question the identity.

Secondly, the relocation plan should make social scientists (particularly anthropologists and geographers) reconsider the Foucauldian notions of security and risk that are commonly used in problematizations of neoliberalism. Concepts like “global assemblage” (Ong and Collier 2005) “vital systems security” (Collier and Lakoff 2015), “supply chain security” (Cowen 2014), “critical infrastructure security” (Collier and Lakoff 2008) and “de-/re-securitization” (Wæver 1995) have been useful for making sense of globalization’s different spatial mechanisms for the exercise of power over life. But the Bhasan Char plan seems to reconstitute an archaic, disciplinary technique of spatial segregation. Just as globalization disaggregated flows of people, goods, and capital, the ubiquity of crises has meant rapid changes in the circulations involving Bangladesh. The Rohingya crisis has brought huge numbers of NGO and aid workers to Cox’s Bazar, a constant source of discussion for middle-class Bangladeshis, especially. This has meant new circulations of “crisis dollars” and “crisis euros”. But the relocation project also engenders a new circulation of climate adaptation knowledge and skill, as technologies are tested to keep the island above water. This constitutes the most important ethical and political question of the relocation project.

Lastly then, the relocation plan implicates the relationship between politics and the state. For John Dewey (2012), the vital political question was locating the distinction between the public and the private, the public being composed of all those who directly or indirectly feel the consequences of the actions of others. This means that there is not a generic public, but that particular publics come into being with particular issues. I think this is a useful way to think about the ethics and politics of the plan to relocate the Rohingya refugees, because it provides a possibility of delimiting channels for action without resorting to crisis narratives. Consider that Bangladesh, particularly its coastal regions, is often said to be on the “front lines” of climate change. The phrase implies that it will be one of the first areas to undergo catastrophic anthropogenic changes. But to say this is also to say that Bangladesh’s coast is located in the future – it will experience something before most of the rest of the world. To me, this recognition makes the Bhasan Char project highly suspect, as if refugees are being mobilized as guinea pigs for testing out survival methods. They are being integrated into a public, but without any say in its organization. We need to develop techniques for integrating Rohingya interests – rather than their bare biological existence – into our political publics. One such technique, as I hope to have suggested, will be to moderate the use of the crisis concept in order to avoid the kind of entropy that results in the aggregation of all political issues into one mega-crisis, in which it becomes impossible to act.


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