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Absurd Lines: Part I

How Syrian refugees use humor to cope with their uncertainty.


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

What is a border to an island but a joke? The sea already bounds the space, a clear and tangible delineation between where a person can travel on foot and where they must swim or boat instead. For refugees and migrants arriving in the Greek isle of Lesvos in 2015, walking to shore meant crossing a border and stepping into the non-place of a refugee camp while waiting for paperwork that would formally expel their arrival from the island and grant them passage elsewhere.

That the stakes of migration are high makes the process and the mechanisms of state no less absurd. In “Laughable borders: Making the case for the humorous in migration studies,” Anja K. Franck of the University of Gothenburg looks at the function and role of humor among Syrian refugees. Franck argues that humor is an under-explored component of migration studies. Jokes serve vital social and political functions, letting the joke-tellers safely comment on their predicament without necessarily inviting the ire of powerful people around them. To be stateless is to be, at a minimum, at the mercy of those the state entrusts to your paperwork.

Franck’s research trip to Lesvos did not begin as one about humor among migrants but became one through observation. Franck and her colleagues made casual conversation with a group of Syrian refugees who had arrived by sea a day earlier, and the conversation turned to a proposal from the European Commission for the UN to use force against smugglers of refugees.

Waiting for an expulsion certificate that grants passage to where a person wants to go is absurd. Laughing at that fact makes it easier to live with the absurdity.

“Forgive me, but your policies are a little stupid, don’t you think?” one of the men in the group joked to Franck. Franck notes “he continues to smile while observing our reaction: ‘I mean, how can you fight smugglers through bombing small rubber dinghies full of refugees?’ We all laugh and shake our heads in response. Because, obviously, you cannot.”

Throughout her description of the experience, the dignity of the people is juxtaposed with the absurdity of events through humor. The refugees, many of whom had the means to get passage out of Syria during the civil war, joke about being greeted on the beach by an American woman handing them bananas, as though the solution to their plight was a volunteer with a mid-afternoon snack.

The research method leaned heavily on the merits of “serial hanging out” on an Aegean island, observing and interacting with the people taking a big gamble on the mercy of states. It’s a good setting for exploring the hurdles of turning flight from war into state legibility.

Writes Franck, “Rather than clinging to suffering as if it was the only means of understanding migrant experiences, we can thus learn a great deal from recognizing migrants’ laughter and from analyzing what it tells about the contours of power that are so central to critical readings of contemporary border regimes.”

Borders are a tool of ordering the world: of deciding where and against whom violence is deployed. If we tell the story of borders as only tragedy, of only violence, we miss the fuller picture, especially of those corralled by borders joking about the predicament. Waiting for an expulsion certificate that grants passage to where a person wants to go is absurd. Laughing at that fact makes it easier to live with the absurdity.

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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