Infrastructural Clashes: Induced Scarcity and Governing Refugees through Depletion

Martina Tazzioli
Goldsmiths, University of London
Twitter: @smartitaz

Synopsis: Asylum seekers stranded in refugee camps in Greece are exposed to multiple infrastructural breakdowns that contribute to the depletion of their lives. In this piece, Martina Tazzioli introduces the concept of “infrastructural clashes” to highlight the apparent clash between high-tech control systems, on the one hand, and, on the other, the failures and scarcity of basic infrastructures in camps – such as electricity, running water, and food. Infrastructural clashes are analyzed not as side effects but rather as constitutive components of modes of governing by debilitating refugees. 

Keywords: refugee camps; infrastructural clashes; induced scarcity; depletion; Greece

Since 2015, Greece has become the testbed of European migration policies. In 2020, the European Commission funded the construction of Closed Controlled Access Centers on the Greek islands of Samos, Leros, Kos, Lesvos and Chios: these sites of migration containment have been presented as high-tech camps that simultaneously facilitate the tracking of refugees and make them safer by preventing unauthorized persons from entering. When the closed camp was inaugurated on the island of Samos in September 2021, both European and Greek authorities promoted it as a “model camp.” In these new camps, the technologization of refugee surveillance is enforced through closed circuit surveillance (CCTV), x-rays, magnetic gates and fingerprint access systems. To go in and out of the camp, resident asylum seekers need to swipe their asylum card and put their finger on a biometric fingerprinting machine installed on the entry gate; thereby, in principle, tracking all comings and goings.

In spite of their high-techness, “model camps” are sites of multiple infrastructural breakdowns: refugees have gone without running waters for weeks and electricity is often shut down at night. Refugee camps in Greece are characterized by repeated breakdowns and by what I call “infrastructural clashes,” building on transdisciplinary literature that has investigated infrastructural breakdowns (Graham and Trift 2007; Turner and Moran 2019; Whyte et al. 2020). The concept of infrastructural clashes highlights two key features of camp infrastructures. First, it designates the shortages and breakdowns of supply infrastructures that ultimately stifle refugees and shrink their leeway of autonomy. Second, it draws attention to the clash between control systems that are presented as high-tech solutions and the persistent induced scarcity of basic infrastructures. By induced scarcity, I refer to the state’s active withdrawal in providing functioning infrastructure, food provisions, and medical-humanitarian aid. Indeed, high-tech and biometric systems are implemented in camps in which both medical support and staple humanitarian provisions are scarce or subject to breakdown. Even high-tech control systems often do not work, reinforcing asylum seekers’ feeling of uncertainty, as they do not know if they will be able to get out of the camp. In the case of many Greek refugee camps, as automated gates are often out of service, asylum seekers are not authorized to go out until they receive their digital asylum card. Far from being just an inconvenience, uneven breakdowns widen the room of maneuver for enforcing disciplinary measures over refugees – by limiting their mobility or hampering their autonomous social reproduction activities such as cooking food in the camp. Indeed, these are justified by both state authorities and humanitarian actors as necessary for assuring asylum seekers’ safety (Pinelli 2018). The apparent clash between automated gates, closed circuit surveillance, and smart cards, on the one hand, and the lack of running water and electricity, on the other, work together to enforce modes of control through depletion, that is by wearing them out and choking so to speak their vitality.  

Conceptualizing Infrastructural Clashes

Infrastructural breakdowns in refugee camps are not side effects or failures but are instead constitutive of modes of governing by debilitating and choking refugees. Infrastructural clashes should be analyzed jointly with a politics of induced scarcity which depletes refugees’ vitality. If infrastructures “become visible upon breakdown,” as Susan Leigh Star has put it (Star 1999: 382; see also Graham, 2009), what about infrastructures which are part of a politics of induced scarcity and which work insofar as they fail? In this respect, it can be argued that infrastructures in camps work precisely to the extent that they fail (Schwenkel 2015). That is, instead of asking why camps are promoted as adequate spaces for asylum seekers if infrastructures constantly break down, we should reverse the question and interrogate what “is served by the failure” (Foucault 2012: 229).

In the case of humanitarian infrastructures, failure notably forecloses possibilities of resistance and fuels what Ferguson (1994) has called the “anti-politics machine.” Infrastructural failures, gaps, and shortages have become part of the lexicon used by humanitarian actors and NGOs to expose and denounce the living conditions of refugees in camps. In turn, humanitarian agencies present basic provisions, such as containers and tents, as markers of infrastructural improvement. Yet, the very politics of refugee encampment is never challenged as such and is instead assessed purely from a technocratic standpoint on how to fix failures. Claims to infrastructural efficiency and functionality thus continue to justify refugee carcerality, as made clear in a public statement made in December 2020 by the European Commission announcing its plans to build a Closed Controlled Access Center in Lesvos and endorsing it as guaranteeing adequate reception conditions:

“the centre will have a living area with containers, a specific area for newly arrived people to help them through the first days, medical containers for immediate health care, recreational spaces for sports, playgrounds and prefabricated houses for formal and non-formal education.”

The slippage between claiming asylum seekers’ right to dignified accommodation and devising policies that guarantee the mere subsistence of refugees is quite frequent. As noted by Peter Redfield (2005), “minimalist biopolitics” haunts programmes and discourses about humanitarian standards. Refugee camps are run through minimal and precarious infrastructures: electricity inside the camp in Lesvos depends on twelve generators and to date only eight work; glitches happen all the time, so the camp often runs out of electricity. In order to save money, the authorities switch off the electricity after 9pm, rendering the camp even more unsafe for refugees at night. In May 2022, women, men, and children staying in a refugee camp on the island of Lesvos went without any electricity for two weeks. In the Closed Controlled Access Center in Samos, championed as a high-tech facility, asylum seekers were left without running water for about three weeks in the spring of 2022. Seemingly paradoxical, the infrastructural clash between high-tech equipment, on the one hand, and the infrastructural failures of basic services, on the other hand, is on the contrary a feature of techno-humanitarianism.

The Politics of Induced Scarcity

Asylum seekers are entrapped in a condition of protracted dependency on the state and humanitarian actors, insofar as they are obstructed from undertaking activities autonomously. At the same time, they are also deprived of sufficient medical, financial, and legal aid. By being forced to rely on humanitarian food assistance and shelters, they are hampered from doing autonomous social reproduction activities, such as cooking food inside Greek hotspots or building makeshift camps. Asylum seekers thus find themselves hindered yet not provided for,   as the humanitarian-logistical support they receive is often scarce, dismal, and delayed. This appears as an infrastructural paradox, as long as camp residents are forced to live in a condition of protracted depletion and disrepair, without being allowed to erect autonomous spaces of livability.

Parallel to power shutoffs, unsafe and inadequate shelters, and technical glitches, scarcity is compounded by the Greek government’s decision to reduce the number of asylum seekers entitled to food and accommodation. In autumn 2021, many people living in Greek refugee camps no longer qualified for humanitarian support; and, simultaneously, asylum seekers no longer able to access accommodation, cash, and food were preventively illegalized. In October 2021, the Greek government enacted a law that denies food and cash assistance to asylum seekers whose asylum claim has been rejected as well as to those whose asylum application has not been registered, usually due to technical glitches and bureaucratic delays. When the UNHCR hand the Cash Assistance Programme over to the Greek authorities, asylum seekers were basically left cashless. During this transition period and for about four months, asylum seekers in Greek refugee camps did not receive any pocket money, thereby intensifying their precarity.

Through this new law and with the support of the EU, the Greek government has downsized the refugee population of concern: many people living in camps were cut off from humanitarian support and left without food, accommodation, and financial aid. Scarcity is therefore induced, as opposed to an untended consequence or side effect. By speaking of induced scarcity, I stress that scarcity works as a political technology of refugee governmentality: through infrastructural clashes and the conscious withdrawal of resources, asylum seekers are kept in a condition of protracted dependency; and yet, at the same time, they cannot rely on sufficient humanitarian provisions. The politics of induced scarcity enforces circuits of protracted dependency: refugees’ needs cannot be satisfied and, jointly, they are hampered from building up infrastructures of livability and from doing autonomous social reproduction activities, such as cooking meals or building structures inside the camp. Thus, induced scarcity not only deteriorates infrastructures of humanitarianism; it also has biopolitical effects on asylum seekers, namely as their vitality is depleted (Cacho 2012; Puar 2021).


The debilitation enhanced through infrastructural clashes shows that refugees are not only obstructed in their mobility but also in their attempt to re-build their lives and to autonomously engage in meaningful social reproduction activities. In so doing, refugees’ carcerality is enforced beyond camp fences as well as mobility restrictions (Tazzioli, 2022): asylum seekers are hampered from building infrastructures of livability and their futures are occluded.

The uneven breakdowns in Greek refugee camps illustrate how people who claim asylum in Europe are governed by protracted depletion and by hampering autonomous infrastructures of life-support. Understood as components of the “debilitating logics of racial capitalism” (Athanasiou 2021) and as techniques of “organized state’s abandonment” (Bhandar 2018; Gilmore, 2015), infrastructural clashes do not appear as failures to be fixed. Rather, it is a question of re-articulating a critique of the border regime grounded on the debilitation of refugees’ vitality and lifetime, highlight continuities with modes of governing by multiplying racialized hierarchies of lives (Andersson, 2018; Khosravi, 2018). A critique of refugee camps requires taking into account that asylum seekers are not only obstructed in their mobility but also in their attempts to rebuild their lives and to autonomously engage in basic social reproduction activities.

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