Image via: @maxwell.charlotte

In detention centres across the world, asylum-seekers have been going on hunger strike to demand humane treatment and the right to have their legal claims heard. In the UK alone, there were an estimated 3,000 hunger strikes in immigration detention centres between 2015 and 2019. These protests are sometimes accompanied by other self-harming acts, such as eye and lip-sewing and in extreme cases self-immolation (i.e. setting oneself on fire). In resorting to such methods, asylum-seekers follow many others who have used the fragility of the human body as a weapon to fight injustice, including the Suffragettes, Gandhi and Irish republicans (most notably, Bobby Sands).

There has as yet been very little scholarly work that examines the distinct ethical issues arising from these peculiar methods of protest. Unfortunately, this leaves room for the authorities to classify such acts as a symptom of mental illness or else as an immoral form of blackmail.

Project aims

This project aims to understand and categorise the phenomenon of self-harming protests and identify normative principles to justify it in the context of state condemnation and punishment. It adopts an innovative methodological approach in ‘grounded political theory’, combining the traditional tools of normative theory with a series of interviews with individuals who have engaged in self-harming protests. The interviews are intended to inform the normative theoretical analysis which provides the core of the project.

It is hoped that the research will explain the moral significance of self-harming protests and offer a framework for its defence in light of broadly shared norms of democracy and human rights. By extension, it will highlight the injustices in contemporary practices of incarceration and border enforcement that lead people to protest in this extreme fashion.

Key questions

  • How should we understand and classify forms of political resistance involving deliberate self-harm?
  • When (if ever) is it morally justified to threaten one’s own self-destruction and death as a means of resistance?
  • Which moral considerations should guide the use of this method of protest?
  • What responsibilities do the authorities and other agents have when faced with such protests?

Project lead

The project is led by Dr. Guy Aitchison (Loughborough University) who is a political theorist working within the normative analytical tradition with interests in political resistance, human rights, democratic theory and migration. You can find out more about Guy’s academic work and background on his personal website and read some of his papers on Academia.edu or Google Scholar.


The project ‘Starving for Dignity: Re-framing the Ethics of Hunger Strikes’ is funded thanks to the generous support of the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant scheme (project no: 21/18405). It runs from 2021 until 2023.

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