Guest Lecture (Public): Language and Humanitarian Governmentality in a Refugee Camp on Lesvos Island

Birgül Yılmaz (British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, UCL Institute of Education) will discuss language and children's right to education in a refugee camp.

Register here for the public lecture

Birgül Yılmaz wearing a white scarf and smiling

Birgül Yılmaz


Separated from Turkey by a 10-kilometre channel, Lesvos island received 45% of the refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015. An agreement called the EU-Turkey Statement signed in March 2016 led to the containment of refugees in hotspots, camps and shelters. Through this statement, the so-called Balkan route has been closed and the refugees, including children and young people, have been immobilised in refugee camps. Drawing on a eight-month ethnography on Lesvos island, this lecture investigates how language teaching and learning become part of the immobilisation of the refugees in a camp that I call Eastside camp (all names used here are pseudonyms from here onwards) and the tensions that emerge when refugees are ‘stuck’ in the asylum procedures. To do this, I problematise the logics of humanitarian governmentality namely how the deployment of moral sentiments such as ‘compassion’, normalises children’s exclusion from public schools and push them towards non-formal education provided in the camps. In my analysis, I question the ambivalent techniques based on ‘compassion’, namely feelings for the suffering and misfortunes of others (Fassin, 2012), in ‘conducting’ the refugees’ conducts, i.e. the rationalisations and prescriptions of rules, and I introduce Foucault’s (2007) notion of ‘counter-conduct’(Urla, 2012), that is, complex layers of refusals, questioning and struggles that emerge as a reaction to the ways in which refugees are governed in a humanitarian setting. By using Fassin’s work on humanitarianism and Foucault’s notion of counter-conduct as my analytical tools in analysing how refugees are managed, I demonstrate how the logics of humanitarian governmentality obscured in discourses of suffering and misfortune entail legal, spatial and social immobility. In order to do this, I move away from the power/resistance dichotomy (Urla & Helepololei 2014) that underlies much of the sociolinguistics literature and instead focus on how subjects ‘struggle’ diagonally, namely the ways in which they move away from direct confrontations to create new forms of conducting themselves ‘otherwise’, which become evident in the struggle around language teaching and learning. By focusing on the entanglements occurring in language education, I demonstrate the contradictions of this type of governmentality (Tazzioli, 2020), which is underpinned by immobility, political economic, biopolitical and security choices and which, in return, denies refugee children’s legally enshrined right to education.


I am a British Academy Postdoctoral Researcher at UCL Institute of Education in the department of Culture, Communication and Media.

I hold a PhD in Linguistics from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, an MRes in Language Discourse and Communication from King's College London and a BA in English and Linguistics from Queen Mary University of London.

Building on my research in refugee camps, my postdoctoral research project deals with refugees’ language practices and their language learning processes in “other” spaces such as squats and self-organised classes as part of their everyday struggle within urban social movements in Athens. My research interests are language and migration, language and humanitarian governmentality, critical/ discourse analysis, language and identity, intersections of language, gender, religion and social class.


Published Oct. 26, 2021 9:49 AM - Last modified Oct. 26, 2021 11:47 AM