By Ala Sirriyeh (Sociology, Keele) and Simon Goodman (Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement, University of Coventry)
In the summer of 2015 the world’s attention was focused on Europe’s borders as thousands of people seeking refuge arrived or perished on route. The now iconic and tragic picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down and still on a Turkish beach dominated news and social media coverage in September 2015. This spectacle of a child’s death led to a shift in the tone of media, political and public discourse on the ‘refugee crisis’ which, for a time, became noticeably more compassionate.
We have argued elsewhere that rather than being presented as one continuing event the movement of people into Europe has been configured as a number of different crises. Over the summer, as the events became framed as a ‘(European) refugee crisis’, debates ensued about how Europe could best respond to this crisis and whether indeed part of the crisis was the nature of the response itself. The perceived absence of compassion in driving the actions of European governments has led many to argue that there is a crisis in the European heart and subsequently the moral and political values that supposedly define this region and its peoples- a #CompassionCrisis. In connection with this it has also been perceived as a crisis in the project of the European Union which originated in the aftermath of that earlier genocide and mass displacement of peoples during the Second World War, with some making parallels with the treatment of the victims of the Holocaust. Engaging with the idea of a crisis of compassion, in June 2015 art activists from the Centre for Political Beauty in Berlin announced plans to exhume the bodies of some of those people who had died trying to reach Europe. They would exhume them from inhumane graves (or storage) where they lay at Europe’s external borders and rebury them with dignity in Berlin, at the heart of Europe. Using the hashtag #DieTotenKommen (The Dead Will Come), the group claimed that this intervention aimed ‘to tear down the walls surrounding Europe’s sense of compassion’.
Research on emotion and immigration, especially on attitudes to immigration and policy-making, have primarily focussed on hostile emotions – disgust, fear, hate and so on (Ahmed 2004, Tyler 2013). There is a more limited critical engagement with ‘humanising emotions’ (Berlant 2004) (including compassion) beyond simply presenting these as a viable and necessary remedy to the exclusion and harm caused by hostility.
As Nussbaum (1996, p.28) states, compassion can be regarded as a basic social emotion bridging the individual and the community through tying together the interests of others with our ‘own personal goods’. It is refreshing to see a broader engagement with emotion in the attention being given in public debates to the matter of compassion in the current refugee crisis. Decision-making, whether considered ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’, draws on both intellectual and emotional reason (Burkitt 2014). Emotions move people and are the outcomes of being moved and emotional reason leads to certain kinds of decisions being made. Compassion perhaps more so than other emotions makes a clear link between the heart and the head; sentiment and action. However, questions remains as to what shape compassionate responses should take and what is the nature of justice that is envisioned as an outcome of such actions? So while some respond in ways that attempt to alleviate suffering in the name of compassion, problematic policies can also be justified on compassionate grounds. There are several challenges that policy and practice informed by compassion potentially present.
Compassion in the current refugee crisis wavers between two different meanings of the term that imply very different social relationships and outcomes. A genuine refugee deserving of our compassion is a refugee not a migrant, a child not a single young man, a Syrian rather than an Afghan. This distance between the spectator and the sufferer can also lead to a problematic disentanglement of the interests of the different actors involved – or the interests of others and our own personal goods (see Nussbaum above on compassion). As part of a wider turn to ‘humanitarian government’ (Fassin 2012) compassionate policies such as Cameron’s Syrian Vulnerable Person Relocation Scheme are used to demonstrate and reinforce the rhetoric of a benevolent UK state with a proud history of welcoming refugees yet do little to address the real scale or causes of the crisis.
This links to a further challenge with the notion of compassion which is with the way in which cause, outcome and response are interlinked and relate to a sense of responsibility and obligation. Those who give compassion are free of blame or obligation. Compassion is a gift rather than an obligation. The right to seek asylum as set out in the 1951 UN Convention is just that: a right. There is a risk that a language of compassion when used to demonstrate or ask for benevolence from the state shifts focus away from legitimate demands for the recognition of rights and demands for justice by those who are agentic human beings rather than passive victims at the mercy of a benevolent state. The notion of compassion as a gift from those who are blameless also severs any critical engagement with Europe’s colonial history and relationships with other parts of the world.
On the part of governments, a discourse of compassion has not only been used to showcase benevolence but has also been used to justify repression – see for example attempts to limit sea rescue missions to dissuade people from making treacherous see journeys to seek refuge in Europe – which amounts to the terrible logic of saving by drowning.