Europe’s Empathy Crisis

On Sunday August 8, in the New York Times, Ross Douthat made some expansive and rather offensive claims about “Africa’s Scramble for Europe”. This was just the latest salve in an international campaign in Western media to stigmatise refugees and paint Europe as the victim in a global migration crisis that is killing hundreds of non-Europeans every month.

So many things about this article were in bad taste. It is reprehensible to make Africa the scapegoat of a complex historical moment in Europe’s history, a moment created in part by political choices that European governments and their allies (read the US) have made but are failing to take responsibility for. It is callous and disingenuous to frame the experience many Africans genuinely seeking solace from difficult situations at home as even remotely similar to Europe’s callous and continuing devastation of the African continent. In fact, there are many possible responses to Douthat, but here is the simplest one: Europe doesn’t have a migrant crisis. Europe has an empathy crisis.


Over the last 20 years, European politics has capitulated to the demands of right wing extremists and systematically choked any rational conversation about immigration, leading to what I’m calling an empathy crisis: a systematic inability to have a reasonable, humane conversation about migration. Instead, the discourse in Europe (and in the US) is always framed in punitive and quite frankly, selfish terms: it’s about finding strategies to help “poor Europe” cope with all these enormous tragedies at their doorstep. Almost never about helping people who have legitimately lost everything except the hope that an extremely dangerous journey could save their lives.

To begin, we seriously need to reconsider what constitutes a “scramble”. Simply, the numbers of people trying to reach Europe as refugees or asylum seekers is a tiny drop in the ocean compared to the vast numbers of displaced people stuck in refugee camps or in legal limbo in the developing world. Yes, between January and June 2015, approximately 137,000 people crossed the Mediterranean into Europe. According to UNHCR statistics, this is the highest number on record.

But as high as this number is, it is a small fraction of the 60 million displaced by conflict globally, many of whom have remained in their countries of origin. In Africa alone, three countries — South Sudan, Central African Republic and Burundi — have between them produced nearly 1 million refugees in neighbouring countries this past year. In fact, when you consider emergencies in Nigeria, Cameroon, The Gambia, the DRC, Libya, Mali and in the Horn of Africa, you realise Europe doesn’t know what a refugee crisis looks like.

UNHCR Figures on Global displacement by war. 2014 had the highest number of people displaced by war. (Source, UNHCR)

Furthermore, the Mediterranean crisis at the heart of misguided panic over an “African invasion of Europe” is not solely about Europe and Africa. There are as many Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis on those boats as there are Africans. In fact, depending on the provenance of the specific boat, the balance of nationalities on board of the ship oscillates wildly, and it is unfair to subsume their complex narratives into a single, if editorially convenient, story. Indeed, the largest humanitarian crisis in the world today, producing the largest number of fatalities and displaced people, is not in Africa. It is in Syria.

The reason why the crisis in the Mediterranean is particularly stark in the minds of humanitarians, and why there is such a concerted effort to raise awareness around it is that a sea route is perhaps the most dangerous option for those fleeing. Just on Saturday, at least 40 people were found dead in the hull of a wooden ship just off the coast of Italy, although thankfully 200 more were rescued. Even though there has always been movement between Africa, The Middle East and Europe across the Mediterranean — long before modern European republics were an idea — never before have so many people attempted to make the crossing on so many unseaworthy boats, captained by heartless traffickers or left to their own untrained devices.

This crisis is chilling because it represents the confluence of several faces of the ugliness of humanity. People are taking obscene amounts of money from vulnerable people who have grappled with seemingly insurmountable odds during their flight, putting them on badly damaged boats, and literally watching them die. This is a story of greed, cruelty, short sightedness, selfishness and just about any other ugly human trait you can imagine. Humanitarian organisations are not panicking about this because there’s “invasion”, but because it is the nadir of human behaviour. We’re panicking because without level-headed intervention, thousands of people are being sent to near certain death.

Which raises an important question that Douthat’s account fails to consider. What is pushing people towards the Europe? If the Mediterranean is the rock, what is the hard place from which people are fleeing knowing their odds of survival are disturbingly low? Many of those fleeing Africa are fleeing the excesses of their own governments, noxious figures like Omar el Bashir in Sudan or Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia. African countries and institutions must take responsibility for that. But European governments must also take responsibility for their part in sustaining these leaders.

These are mostly young people who have been squeezed into a tough spot by political and economic marginalisation to which European countries contribute significantly by providing financial and moral support to autocratic regimes. President Francois Hollande recently cast the ironies of European hand wringing on refugees in stark relief. In March 2015, while numbers of migrants dying at sea steadily climbed, Hollande made a whistlestop tour of Africa that primarily featured leaders with the some of the ugliest human rights records in recent history, like Cameroon’s Paul Biya and Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos, two Africa’s longest serving presidents at 31 and 36 years in power respectively.

If European countries were really serious about resolving the crisis in the Mediterranean, they would rein in their support for oppressive governments, and stop multi-million dollar arms sales to leaders like Salva Kiir and Reik Machar in South Sudan who are determined to use them against their own people. Remember, except for South Africa, African countries don’t manufacture weapons. The guns being used in African killing fields are coming from Europe (including Russia), North America and China. Effective weapons sale and manufacturing restrictions are an easy policy response to the global refugee crisis. European governments could instead support universities and higher education institutions to encourage young people to create opportunities for themselves at home.

Finally the cardinal sin at the heart of Douthat’s analysis —the casual use of the word “migrant” to refer to everyone from those fleeing wars and famines, to those who are desperately in search for better economic opportunities, to students.

Refugees are not migrants.

There are life-or-death reasons why experts on mobility use words like “migrant” or “refugee” only in specific contexts. It affects how policy makers respond to specific groups of people. Migration and flight are two substantively different forces and it is editorially convenient but intellectually unsound to label every African who moves to Europe a “migrant”. When any or all migration is framed as a unitary thing, all of which is threat against Fortress Europe, policy makers take knee-jerk publicity seeking interventions that penalise groups they can reach harshly. They push those who need protection most — the trafficked especially — dangerously underground. Already, European countries are punishing students who legally enter European countries with no intention to stay — restricting opportunities for part-time work or post-study training opportunities — based on the false presumption that even fee-paying students are putative migrants.


There are so many more specific responses to the broad claims in Douthat’s piece. It doesn’t take into account the many Europeans who migrate to Africa and other parts of the world every year. It makes it seem like its Africa’s fault that Europeans aren’t having children. Honestly, if Africa’s demography is that much of a threat to Europe, European governments should incentivise Europeans to have more sex and/or children instead of fostering a poisonous, anti-people attitude to mobility.

Instead of encouraging European countries to keep developing “restrictions that actually keep people out” we should be encouraging a healthy approach to migration that recognises it as an integral part of the human experience. Human mobility isn’t a new phenomenon: rigid, impermeable borders are. MSF recently observed that the people who are risking life and limb to cross the Mediterranean are paying more to be on those boats than they would to board a plane. This isn’t an illogical choice. It is a logical response to hardening European borders and the closure of safe, legal routes for mobility, especially for the vulnerable.

Certainly there are many Europeans working against their governments’ anti-people rhetoric to demonstrate the same spirit of solidarity that provided safety for European victims of war when they needed it. Greek volunteers especially should be congratulated for working with displaced persons in the context of their own country’s crisis. But articles like Douthat’s unnecessarily suffocate these efforts under meaningless rhetoric.

To repeat, Europe doesn’t have a migration crisis. Europe has an empathy crisis — fuelled by rising racist paranoia and an inability to see beyond its nose to the many ways in which it causes and sustains the problems that lead people to take the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. If refugees bother Europe and the West so much, then Europe should be doing more to end war instead of stigmatising the victims of wars Europe is helping sustain.