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The Channel “crisis” and the politics of compassion


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In the absence of safe and legal routes into the UK, migrants and refugees are undertaking desperate and treacherous journeys across the Channel in small boats and dinghies. On 19 August, news broke of the tragic drowning of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, a young Sudanese man, who had attempted this crossing. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, described his death as “an upsetting and tragic loss of a young life”. Yet days later the Home Office released a video gleefully anticipating a post-Brexit future when pesky “activist lawyers” will no longer be able to hamper its efforts to deport people who have survived the Channel crossing.

These latest manifestations of the hostile environment and the voyeuristic reporting by some journalists have prompted fierce criticism from politicians and campaigners, and among the wider public, who have condemned the lack of humanity and compassion shown to people making the crossing. In my book, The Politics of Compassion, I explored how we might understand such moments when there is an outpouring of sentiments of compassion in response to the suffering of people seeking refuge, most notably following the drowning of a three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, in 2015. I examined the role of compassion in immigration and asylum policy discourses in the UK, Australia and the US through exploring how policies are expressed, justified and responded to in public debates.

The drawbacks of compassion

While a key element of compassion is sympathy for a person who is suffering, there is also a directive to action to alleviate this suffering. This is reflected in the verb “to compassion” which has fallen out of use. Historically the term “compassion” had two meanings: 1) “co-suffering” among equals, and 2) compassion shown at a distance to someone who is suffering by someone who is free from this suffering. The latter definition has become dominant, leading to divergent perspectives about who is deemed worthy of a compassionate response, what constitutes a compassionate response, and what outcome is envisioned through this action.

Collective calls for compassion can serve as powerful (if temporary) interruptions to the seemingly unrelenting hostile discourses that characterise contemporary debates on immigration. But framing action through compassion can also be problematic when some people are excluded from recognition as legitimate subjects of compassion (and, also, in the terms of engagement, when there is an emphasis on vulnerability and passiveness). In the media speculation about Abdulfatah Hamdallah’s true age there is a trace of the suspicion that was levelled against the unaccompanied young people who arrived from France in 2016, some of whom were accused of being men rather than boys. Would it have been less of a tragedy if Hamdallah were 28 rather than 16?

Laundering sympathy into violence

A discourse of compassion has also been cynically co-opted and repurposed by governments to justify and enforce restrictive border policies through violence. It is a lack of safe and legal routes for migration that drives people to undertake dangerous sea crossings out of desperation. Yet the UK government response has been to further securitise the borders, drawing on the military and appointing a “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander” tasked with making the Channel crossing “unviable” for small boats, all the while laying blame squarely at the feet of people smugglers for the harm they inflict on vulnerable people.

While describing Hamdallah’s death as a “tragic loss”, instead of reviewing the violent border control measures enacted by her department, Patel has used the tragedy to reinforce her justification for the militarisation of the Channel (“this horrendous incident serves as a brutal reminder of the abhorrent criminal gangs and people smugglers who exploit vulnerable people”). As seen with the EU’s response to boat crossings during the refugee crisis and Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy, in declaring war on smugglers governments have co-opted a discourse of compassion to enact violent and punitive policies in the name of care for migrants and refugees.

A link is made between the emotion of compassion and the emotion of outrage. Outrage is expressed towards the vilified figure of the people smuggler as governments cleanse themselves of responsibility and shame for policies and actions that cause or amplify suffering. Through this face-saving manoeuvre governments have positioned themselves in the role of moral rescuers.

Strong men drown too

Alongside a focus on the role of people smugglers, blame has also been levelled at people labelled as migrant “queue jumpers”. While hearts break for those who have died at sea during the refugee crisis, they have hardened for those who survived and came ashore. At this point the weak are transformed into the strong, and children become men.

Discussing eligibility for the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme at the Conservative Party conference in 2015, and speaking about people who had arrived in Europe, then Home Secretary, Theresa May said: “The [current asylum] system is geared towards helping those most able to access it, and sometimes manipulate it, for their own ends – those who are young enough, fit enough, and have the resources to get to Britain. But that means support is too often denied to the most vulnerable, and those most in need of our help”. The speech implied that if people are genuinely in a serious state of suffering they lack agency. Suffering is primarily evidenced through the body; certain “weaker” bodies are more likely to suffer.

This argument resurfaced again on 2 September in the Commons when, in reference to the Channel crossings, Conservative MPs referred to “queue jumping” and “asylum shopping”. Immigration minister Chris Phelps suggested those crossing were undermining the legitimate claims of others.

A definition of compassion that centres on the “innocence” of the person who is suffering requires an idealised and passive version of humanity. This idealisation of the suffering person constructs an essentially passive object of compassion who must live up to this vision of innocent victimhood. Governments mobilise a discourse of compassion to reinforce a divide between “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants and refugees, and therefore withhold compassion from those unable to enact the conditions necessary. 

True compassion would involve helping people

Centring calls for compassion in condemnations of violent border controls can serve as a powerful (although not unproblematic) interruption and an opportunity to reset the terms of debate. But a discourse of compassion can manifest in different ways and lead to different outcomes depending on how it is mobilised. There has been a cynical co-optation and repurposing of “compassion” by the British and other governments to bolster border enforcement priorities. A truly compassionate response would instead dismantle these violent border controls and provide safe routes for migration.

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Ala Sirriyeh

Dr Ala Sirriyeh is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Lancaster and the author of The Politics of Compassion (2018).