The Refugee Crisis: Compassion Must Extend to Those Who Don’t Feel It

You will have seen the photo of a little boy lying face down on the shoreline of a Turkish beach, or one of the policeman carrying him away. You will know that he drowned when the boat he and his family were in capsized, an overcrowded boat trying to reach Greece. You may know his mother and older brother also died. You may know his father survived; you may even have read about his father’s desperate attempts to save his family, how he went from one to the other trying to keep them afloat. You might even know that the family’s application for asylum in Canada had failed, even though the father’s sister lived there.

Like me, you will have felt shock when you saw the photo of that little boy. Like me, it might have taken you a few moments to realise what you were looking at, that this wasn’t a baby sleeping, but a lifeless child being washed by waves. Like me, you may have felt a chill on recognition and were unable to stop the tears that followed.

Like me, you may have paused a moment to think about how fortunate we are to live in countries where bombing raids are not everyday occurrences, where death doesn’t come hurtling from the sky. The photo below is of Kobane last year, that little boy’s home town, possibly around the time his family fled the city.

Kobane By Voice of America News [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kobane By Voice of America News [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday I read that our Prime Minister, David Cameron, believed the UK should not take any more Middle East refugees. Given that we’ve taken around 216 from Syria in the last eighteen months, I didn’t agree with him, and tweeted to say so.

 Over the last few days, there has been growing disquiet in the UK over the lack of response from our leader to the growing number of deaths among the refugees feeling Syria, disquiet that intensified after the release of that harrowing photo. All week, opposition politicians called for action, and Labour’s Yvette Cooper went so far as to work out a plan whereby each council could take 10 refugees, meaning the UK could provide sanctuary for 10,000 without impacting any one area. Councils of all political parties, including several from Cameron’s own, immediately responded by offering to take refugees, and by demanding that the government take action. Later yesterday, I read that Cameron had bowed to public and political pressure and agreed that the UK will take in more Syrian refugees. According to the article linked to in the tweet below, Cameron had  spoken of how moved he had been by the picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi. 

David Cameron said the UK would “fulfil our moral responsibilities.” Some people have criticised him for this, for seeing the need to act as a moral responsibility, not as a compassionate act. Many people have also criticised him for taking so long, to act, wondering if he has a heart at all. Several spoke of “shaming” him into action.

Many other people are still tweeting bitter messages about the refugees, saying we shouldn’t take any, saying the UK is full already, saying that in a few years the refugees will join Islamic State and terrorise us. Just a few moments ago, I saw a reporter’s Tweet about over a thousand refugees setting off from Budapest to walk to Vienna. These people have been stranded in a railway station for days, having come into Hungary en route to other parts of Europe. Below the tweet was this comment: “People who found safety in Hungary but want more more are not refugees but migrants. Ungratefull people with wrong mentality.”

The short video below shows the conditions these “ungrateful people with wrong mentality” are living in.

Readers of this blog, I am fairly sure, are compassionate. You care about the plight of the refugees. You probably feel as taken aback by that comment as I did. As so many other people do, you may feel angry at those who don’t seem to care, including politicians, celebrity journalists or ordinary people. Like me, you probably feel horror on reading that according to Amnesty International, refugees on the Greek island of Kos were attacked in the early hours of Friday by “thugs” with bats, telling them to “go back to their countries.”

But let’s not fool ourselves. It’s easy to feel outraged at the lack of compassion, and it’s a lot harder to feel compassion for the people who don’t feel it. Yet, we are all part of that same humanity, and that includes the people who cope with the suffering of others by hardening their hearts, by turning away, by blaming victims.

While it would be nice if humanity didn’t behave that way, we all have the capacity to do it. We are more likely to get change in others if we acknowledge that. Take me for example: until earlier this week I hadn’t been that active in trying to support the refugees. I  was caught up in family issues that at times felt overwhelming so when I saw the news of boats capsizing, I felt shock, and hoped that “someone” would do something, but I wasn’t really sure what I could do. It seemed to be the job of governments.

This week, as every week, many people have tried to shame others into taking action or changing their views. While this might get people into action, it’s less successful in bringing a change of view. Worse than that, it drives beliefs into secrecy, and according to Dr. Thomas Scheff, shame and rage amplify each other in a dangerous spiral. ”Shame is the hidden motive in feuds and vendettas that go on forever.” Referenced in an article written back in 1987, he even cites the Middle East as an example of this. In the Buzzfeed article Does Sharing Shocking Images Really Make A Difference? behavioural psychologist, Dr Dean Burnett, explains why trying to use the disturbing images to motivate people change doesn’t work:  “If someone attacks you, the obvious solution isn’t to go, ‘Oh, yes, you’re right.’ It’s a threat, you’re under attack, the fight-or-flight response kicks in.” He describes this as group identity, which feels like part of who you are.

Massive Influx of Syrians into Turkey 2014 photo by European Commission DG ECHO

Massive Influx of Syrians into Turkey 2014 photo by European Commission DG ECHO

If David Cameron has opened the UK to thousands of refugees only because he felt pressured into doing it, then it’s unlikely he has changed his views on how the crisis should be handled. If he looked at that photos of little Aylun and imagined what it must feel like to be his father, or the father of any of the dozens of children who have drowned trying to escape Syria, Libya and other war torn countries, then it’s much more likely he genuinely wants to help. In fact, according to the BBC, the Prime Minster hasn’t changed his argument. “He still thinks opening up Europe’s borders and agreeing quotas will not solve the refugee crisis. In fact, he thinks it would make it worse by increasing pull factors and encouraging people traffickers.” He says we should be helping people nearer their homelands. I’d say we need to help people nearer their homelands and give them refuge in our countries. It’s not either-or. We could also do what Aylan al-Kurdi’s father did, and call for the wealthy Arab Nations, including the UAE and Qatar to take their share of refugees.

My name is on at least 2 petitions calling on David Cameron to act, and I’ve never voted for his party in my life. So I am quite willing to work to persuade  him to act, and I’m not his biggest fan. But demonising him, or any of the people who feel afraid of bringing refugees to our country, will not change them nor help the refugees. I agree with this tweeter, who is writing about a British newspaper that until recently was not on the refugees’ side, and that is known for its reactionary views:

We can’t just have compassion for one group of people; we need to find compassion for all – however challenging that might be. Only that will bring a lasting solution, and a true understanding between people. It is often in times of individual crisis that we become stronger and wiser and it’s time to allow this global crisis to make us all wiser and kinder.

If you would like to donate to help the refugees, these are some charities and organisations supporting them:

Save The Children Migrant Offshore Aid Station (International humanitarians, security professionals, medical staff, and experienced maritime officers who have come together to help prevent further catastrophes at sea.)

Medicins San Frontiers International Rescue Committee – sets up refugee camps.

The next two are both UN Refugee Agency appeals:

UNHCR specially for Syrian refugees

Refugee Crisis in Europe – for all refugees in Europe


  1. As usual, you write what I want to have thought only I didn’t have the clarity. I am so taken with the tweets about the Sun – such a well thought out piece and one I shall reflect on in my own behaviours. Thank you Yvonne.

    1. Author

      Thanks Geoff, for such a sweet comment. I loved those tweets too. (Obviously, since I included them in the post!)
      I’ve been away, so only getting round to replying now.

  2. Love this. It’s such a complicated, awful situation. I find it hard to be compassionate towards those who would beat refugees fleeing from a horrifying situation in their home country. But you are right. It is important to understand whence the vitriol comes. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Author

      Deb, yes, it’s so much harder to find compassion for those who don’t want the refugees – or who are hardened towards anyone. But if we want them to change, we need to show them how.
      Thanks very much for your comment.

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