Refugees: Humans-as-Waste?

In late September near the Mürşitpınar border crossing in Turkey, Syrian refugees came pouring across the fallow pepper fields by the tens of thousands. They were ethnic Kurds. They were running from the bullets and knives of the Islamic State. Many came in cars, in sedans and hatchbacks, in delivery vans and pickup trucks, raising clouds of fine, white dust from some of the oldest continuously farmed fields in the world. The Turks would not allow such a motley caravan to pass. A parking lot of abandoned cars grew at the boundary. One day black-clad Islamist fighters came and got the cars, stole them from right under the noses of Turkish soldiers. The soldiers watched. They couldn’t have cared less.

So it begins. You take a step. You exit one life and enter another. You walk through a cut border fence into statelessness, vulnerability, dependency, and invisibility. You become a refugee.

Paul Salopek, “Fleeing Terror, Finding Refuge,” National Geographic, March 2015

With all the recent press and growing public awareness of the biggest refugee crisis in recent history, I thought it was timely to post Hudson McFann’s introduction to the concept of humans-as-waste. Discard studies is about more than discarded, wasted, unsaved, invisible, and externalized objects. It also includes people.

Some of the press about refugees is about how nations are not being accepting enough, and how individuals and groups are mobilizing their resources to welcome refugees. The difference between the actions and discourses of states vs ordinary people is striking. The state refugees are running from, and many countries like Canada and Australia who refuse most refugees, treat certain humans-as-waste. Yet, the grassroots response is overwhelmingly welcoming. This gap is something to attend to.

By Hudson McFann
From the Discard Studies Compendium

Over the last two decades, scholars have increasingly focused on the production of humans asca form of waste—often as a condition of colonialism, modernity, and capitalism. While the precise formulation “human(s)-as-waste” (with and without hyphens) is sometimes employed (e.g., Mbembe 2011, Yates 2011), a survey of the literature reveals usages of many related formulations, such as “child as waste” (Katz 2008), “discarded people” (Desmond 1971), “disposable people” (Bales 1999), “garbaged” bodies (Scanlan 2005), “wasted humans” (Bauman 2004), and “waste populations” (Beck 2009).

In recent literature on humans-as-waste, at least three (overlapping) analytical approaches and corresponding lineages can be identified: symbolic, biopolitical, and politico-economic. Symbolic approaches to humans-as-waste (e.g., Anderson 1995, Esty 1999, Ryan 2013) often engage the work of Douglas (1966) and Kristeva (1982) to explore how humans have been rendered “matter out of place” (cf. James 1987: 126) or abject. Ferguson (1999) offers a particularly instructive elaboration of Kristeva’s notion of abjection, defining it as a process of being not only “thrown aside, expelled, or discarded,” but also “thrown down—thus expulsion but also debasement and humiliation” (236). Biopolitical approaches to humans-as-waste are generally informed by Foucault’s writings on biopolitics and state racism (2003), Agamben’s on homo sacer and “bare life” (1998; see also 1999). and Mbembe’s on necropolitics (2003). An example is Giroux’s (2006) critique of what he terms the “biopolitics of disposability” (see also Beck 2009). Both symbolic and biopolitical approaches are concerned with the re/production of social order, with how the social is ascribed a corporeality, so that an Other may be cast as polluting or superfluous, dangerous or expendable; violent acts thus become positive means of social purification and protection. However, while symbolic approaches tend to focus on the individual or on particular stigmatized people as waste, biopolitical approaches examine the constitution of humans-as-waste as a threat at the level of the population. The third approach, politico-economic, frequently employs a Marxist critique by examining humans-as-waste as a byproduct of the capitalist mode of production. In Volumes One and Three of Capital, respectively, Marx argues that capitalism perpetually generates human superfluity in the form of a “surplus population” of workers (1976) and, moreover, “squanders human beings, living labour,” resulting in a “waste of the workers’ life and health” (1981: 182). For Marxian politico-economic analyses of humans-as-waste, see Gidwani & Reddy (2011), Mbembe (2011), Wright (2006), and Yates (2011).

In addition to these analytical approaches, there are three major concepts of humans-as-waste, which can be distinguished as heuristic, instrumental, and mnemonic. While many scholars have invoked humans-as-waste as a generative heuristic concept for elucidating ways in which certain people are regarded and treated, much less attention has been paid to waste’s historically, geographically, and culturally specific usages as an instrumental or mnemonic concept—that is, in particular, by “perpetrators” to discursively render humans waste, or by “victims” to convey being regarded and treated as waste. Such inquiry is needed to reveal the different meanings with which waste is imbued, as well as how, or whether, figurative usages of waste engender distinctive effects—compared to, for example, usages of animal or disease metaphors. This poses a key theoretical challenge to scholars of discard studies, for humans-as-waste is not an ontologically fixed concept with a universal essence, but rather indexes a multitude of discursive practices that should be examined critically for their contingency and particularity.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Agamben, Giorgio. 1999. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.

Anderson, Warwick. 1995. Excremental colonialism: Public health and the poetics of pollution. Critical Inquiry 21(3): 640-669.

Bales, Kevin. 1999. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Beck, John. 2009: Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Desmond, Cosmas. 1971. The Discarded People: An Account of African Resettlement in South Africa. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, UK: Routledge.

Esty, Joshua. 1999. Excremental postcolonialism. Contemporary Literature XL(1): 22-59.

Ferguson, James. 1999. Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt.Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2003. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York, NY: Picador.

Gidwani, Vinay & Reddy, Rajyashree N. 2011. The afterlives of “waste”: Notes from India for a minor history of capitalist surplus. Antipode 43(5): 1625-1658.

Giroux, Henry A. 2006. Reading Hurricane Katrina: Race, class and the biopolitics of disposability. College Literature33(3): 171-196.

James, William. 1987. The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. In Writings, 1902-1910 (1-477). New York, NY: Library of America.

Katz, Cindi. 2008. Childhood as spectacle: Relays of anxiety and the reconfiguration of the child. Cultural Geographies15(1): 5-17.

Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital, Volume 1. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1981. Capital, Volume 3. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.

Mbembe, Achille. 2011. Democracy as a community of life. The Johannesburg Salon 4: 5-10.

Ryan, Connor. 2013. Regimes of waste: Aesthetics, politics, and waste from Kofi Awoonor and Ayi Kwei Armah to Chimamanda Adichie and Zeze Gamboa. Research in African Literatures 44(4): 51-68.

Scanlan, John. 2005. On Garbage. London, UK: Reaktion Books.

Wright, Melissa W. 2006. Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Yates, Michelle. 2011. The human-as-waste, the labor theory of value, and disposability in contemporary capitalism.Antipode 43(5): 1679-1695.