Alexia Pepper de Caires and Shaista Aziz of NGO Safe Space respond to Amnesty International Netherlands’ recent refugee campaign with an open letter.

Dear Amnesty,

As a global leader on human rights, women, gender-queer/ non-binary people and men around the world support your work.

They join you to act in solidarity with oppressed people in the most overlooked places in the international media spotlight.

You have a strong track record of standing up for women’s rights as human rights and we commend you for it. However, as women in political and public life, intersectional feminists, and the co-founders of NGO Safe Space – a feminist collective here to disrupt and challenge the patriarchal, racist and neo colonial structures of the western aid and NGO sector – we write this open letter to state our disgust at Amnesty Netherlands’ grotesque refugee advert campaign.

We gather this campaign was created in the name of white western NGO “do-gooding” to urge people to engage with the global human rights crisis known to the western world as “Europe’s refugee crisis”, and to not “look away” from people fleeing for their lives as refugees.

A woman of colour, lying alluring on a bed of life jackets, gazing into the camera as if ready for sex, semi nude and hair spread out around her head. “I’m here for you, ready and waiting” the image whispers, mirroring American Beauty’s problematic depiction of Mena Suvari.

Your new marketing campaign has chosen to depict a woman of colour in a hyper sexualised, fetishised and eroticised manner. She is, we are told, in real life, an Arab woman, a model, who herself was once a refugee. The woman’s only function in this photograph is to look like a passive sexualised object – she exists only to please all those who gaze at her.

“The simple and inconvenient fact that has been erased by Amnesty Netherlands is that many of the black women and women and girls of colour who constitute the majority of the world’s refugees exist in contexts where their bodies do not belong to them.”

By looking at the way this image has been constructed we are taking a punt and suggesting that women of colour and refugee women (other than the model) were not involved in the construction of this campaign and instead a predominantly white, male and a sprinkling of white women leadership team presented this narrative of toxic patriarchal and sexual “empowerment” dressed up as a desire to “help” refugees. The “humanising refugees” industry is the gift that keeps on giving. “How can we find new ways to tell the refugee story?” “How do we raise more funds for ourselves to do this work?”.

The simple and inconvenient fact that has been erased by Amnesty Netherlands is that many of the black women and women and girls of colour who constitute the majority of the world’s refugees exist in contexts where their bodies do not belong to them.

Their bodies have been used and abused as weapons of war and sexual degradation, abuse, and pleasure by the men and boys who wage war and conflict and turn women and girls into refugees. Their bodies are bartered over, traded over and trafficked and when a tiny minority of these women eventually do arrive on the shores of fortress Europe, their racialised bodies are denied dignity and deemed “illegal” by a racist and dehumanised asylum and immigration system primarily focused on locking refugees out.

“We also call on NGOs to challenge their harmful, racist and sexist portrayals of women from the Global South as a matter of urgency.”

The Mediterranean has become a graveyard for black women, men, children and people of colour. It’s incomprehensible that one of the world’s richest and powerful human rights NGO has turned it into a backdrop for a fashion shoot. Women have given birth in life jackets, miscarried in life jackets and died in life jackets.

This is the context behind this disgraceful and shameful advert campaign. How a global human rights organisation can gloss over these realities is breathtaking to us. It shows us once again how casual racism and sexism is in the NGO sector and how under the guise of “doing good” so much patriarchal harm and damage is being done to women from the Global South. Refugee women and refugees are not seeking white western pity – like all human beings refugee women and refugees are seeking their human rights and the right to live a life where they are valued, where their agency and  dignity is retained and where they can thrive and live as human beings.

We call on Amnesty Netherlands to remove this advert immediately and along with the wider Amnesty International movement to take responsibility for the damage that has been done and to issue a statement acknowledging what has taken place.

We also call on NGOs to challenge their harmful, racist and sexist portrayals of women from the Global South as a matter of urgency.

UPDATE 20/12/18 11:30: Amnesty Netherlands appear to have now changed the image to the following:


Amnesty Netherlands’ response on Twitter is as follows:

“We have indeed removed the front cover of the magazine. Amnesty International Netherlands apologizes for any offence this has caused and for the error of judgement that led to its publication.” – (view tweet)

“We never intended to offend anyone and regret that the choice for the cover has been a distraction from our ongoing work to end the dire situation for many trapped on the Greek islands.” – (view tweet)

The response from NGO Safe Space is as follows:

We have shared our open letter with senior representatives at Amnesty Netherlands, Amnesty International and Amnesty UK  and await their full and transparent response to the points we raised.Amnesty Netherlands have now replaced one refugee glamour shot with another one showing the same model peeking out of barbed wire with her smoky eyes. This not progress.

However, we are pleased that NGO Safe Space’s letter and the airing of institutional racism and sexism in aid have been amplified by many people – supporting our campaign for accountability.

We continue to hear from intersectional feminists and people with experience of arriving into Greece as a refugee in a life jacket how much this imagery by Amnesty Netherlands impacted on them. This work must be done.

Update 20/12/18 15:30: The campaign has now been withdrawn. The Response from NGO Safe Space is as follows:

NGO Safe Space welcomes Amnesty International’s decision to pull their harmful Glamoria refugee campaign and issue an apology, following NGO Safe Space’s open letter published by Media Diversified on Wednesday 19 December.

As an intersectional feminist platform created to disrupt and challenge toxic patriarchal, racist and neo colonial structures in the NGO sector that specifically harm women from the Global South, NGO Safe Space is pleased Amnesty has acknowledged the harm done by this campaign firstly and primarily to refugee women. It is these women, overwhelmingly black women and women of colour, who are not granted the luxury of having their humanity and dignity acknowledged as a given based on their racialised identities. And it these women who need organisations such as Amnesty to advocate for their rights the most. Crucially though this advocacy must be carried out with refugee women and refugees, and must never compromise individual’s agency, dignity and human rights.

NGO campaigns such as these are not unique to Amnesty, they have appeared and continue to appear in the wider aid and development sector. Campaigns like this do not appear in a vacuum, they are constructed through the huge racialised power imbalances in the western NGO sector. This is fundamentally why women and girls from the Global South continue to be depicted as props in marketing campaigns to satisfy “white saviourhood” and white western “do gooding” – to keep the money and funding coming in for these organisations to function. Until the NGO sector is willing to confront the racism, sexism and patriarchal power structures that are inflicting harm, nothing will change.

Campaigns like this are also conceived when feminists working inside these organisations are silenced, and when women and specifically feminist black women and women of colour are missing from management and governance structures, and the rooms where these decisions are made.

We acknowledge the decades of work our intersectional feminist sisters have been doing in this sector. We see the lack of value, respect and resources most are afforded in the patriarchal power structures of these global organisations. We acknowledge the impact on their mental and physical health and career prospects when they continue to do principled work.

We have been hugely humbled by the response to our campaign in the past twenty four hours and by the number of refugee women, black and women of colour working in the sector who have reached out to us.

In this year that #MeToo surfaced, second time around, the voices of women from the Global South have been largely erased by white feminists. This version of feminism continues to do a huge disservice and inflicts harm and damage on black women and women of colour. Gender inequality is interwined with dismantling structural and everyday racism and bigotry, including homophobia, transphobia and ableism. Feminism ceases to exist when those who refer to themselves as feminists are unwilling to understand and apply intersectionality to their own lives values and feminism.

We call on all NGOs to urgent review and redress their harmful practices to women of the Global South.

Alexia Pepper de Caires, Shaista Aziz and a small group of women founded NGO Safe Space a platform for intersectional feminists in response to #AidToo to gather testimonies on sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in the humanitarian aid and international development sector. 

Follow Shaista Aziz

Follow Alexia Pepper de Caries

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