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In Review: The Politics of Compassion: Immigration and Asylum Policy

Claire Ellis

This piece reviews The Politics of Compassion by Ala Sirriyeh and considers what compassion really means in the context of undocumented migration and asylum. In 2015, when the image of a lifeless boy lying on a beach filled our screens, a swell of public outcry prompted calls for action from local communities and governments globally. The child was Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, who had boarded a boat along with his family to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. The boat capsized shortly after leaving Turkey and few survived; the dead joining the many others who had perished in those waters while trying to reach safety in the wake of conflict and persecution. The sight of Alan lying face down on the sand brought on an outpouring of compassion and outrage from politicians, the public, and the media, which led to mass donations to refugee serving agencies, quickly organized grassroots initiatives, and government commitments to address the refugee crisis. Some years later, as anti-immigrant/refugee narratives are increasingly woven into the foundations of public debate and political platforms, and borders are becoming increasingly fortified in the wake of COVID-19, there are critical grounds to ask what brought on the emotional outpouring of compassion for Alan Kurdi - where did it go, and did it do any good?

In The Politics of Compassion, author Ala Sirriyeh does just that by providing a nuanced investigation into what compassion really means in the context of undocumented migration and asylum. Recognizing the abundance of scholarly attention paid to the negative discourses facing migration, Sirriyeh breaks away from this tradition to examine how seemingly positive emotions like compassion are employed by actors to serve different interests, often to the detriment of migrants and refugees. The story of compassion outlined in this short yet robust book is much more complex than public outrage and grief, but twists through histories of colonial empires, Victorian notions of charity, the criminalization of migration, media representations of migrants and refugees, pro-migrant activism, and political discourses of selective concern.

Focusing on undocumented migrants and refugees through case studies of Australia, the US and the UK, Sirriyeh maps out the emotional context of national migration policies, highlighting different contexts of how compassion creates dividing lines between who is worthy of concern and who is not. As political leaders engage in a form of ‘emotional governance’ that guides public reactions, argues Sirriyeh, it is important to evaluate emotions for “the purpose for which they are engaged, the way in which they are engaged with and the impacts they have” (p.24, italics in original). Through the lens of moral philosophy and social science, Sirriyeh unpacks conceptualizations of compassion as a humanizing emotion that links empathy, the suffering of others, and impulses to act to alleviate such suffering. Yet she also locates a more contemporary version of compassion that takes cues from concepts of pity and proximity, resulting in a “socially distant relationship of pity” between those suffering and witnesses that absolves the witness of a responsibility to act (p.31). In particular for migrants and refugees, pleas for compassionate action in response to displacement are paired with exclusionary policy actions that position only some refugee identities worthy of humanitarian responses.

Narrowing in on the case of Alan Kurdi, which Sirriyeh argues was a turning point in the emotional script towards refugees, the book discusses the shared public grief that seemingly transcended political opinion. Employing a discourse analysis of national UK newspapers that reported on the death of Alan, the author draws out imagery of the vulnerable child that temporarily interrupted adverse public and political discourses towards refugees. Here the reader is shown how compassion and tragedy are reserved for the plight of children whose fragility requires saving through what Sirriyeh connects to a Victorian-era ethos of the ‘ideal’ childhood. Alan had a name, and hashtags like #CouldBeMyChild, revealed the personal connection the public felt in relation to his death. Yet this interruption was only temporary, Sirriyeh shows, and soon the compassion reserved for Alan met its limits, becoming a political tool to obscure the reality of refugee migration. Alan’s father, who survived the boat sinking, was described as a “migrant” and “people smuggler” (p.69), while news articles made few mentions of the circumstances that led his family to make the treacherous boat journey. The narrative of the ‘good’ refugee conceptualized as an innocent child disconnects compassion from the context of conflict and asylum that surrounded Alan, including the others who suffered the same fate that day.

An important contribution of this book is its commitment to providing a better understanding of the historical context in which modern interpretations of compassion have come to mediate and influence contemporary policy and politics. Focusing on Anglo-colonial histories, Sirriyeh takes us through a brief colonial history of Australia, the US, and the UK, mapping the early manifestations of imperial rule through the slave trade and territorial occupation to modern embodiments of nation-building based on ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ immigrants. These historical colonial contexts, she argues, are essential to understanding how the politics of compassion has come to play out in contemporary discourses. Along the way, compassion has yielded an occupying force, used to justify the ‘civilizing mission’ of colonial actors in bringing progress and moral reform to ‘savages’. Following the abolition of slavery came a ‘benevolent colonialism’ that linked compassion with civility and tolerance of occupied peoples. This led to contemporary discourses of compassion as “generous ahistorical gifts” rather than a responsibility to ensure rights (p.75).

The complexity of compassion and how it contributes to oppressive migration policy and politics is well presented through the concepts of compassionate violence and violent humanitarianism. Sirriyeh demonstrates how governments have used compassion to justify strict border enforcement and military policy under the guise of protecting migrants and refugees from harm. Take for example the war on smuggling, where concern for those subject to depictions of nefarious smugglers is used to justify restrictive border and anti-smuggling policy, although it is the tightening of border and immigration policies that often drive people to travel by smuggling means. Political discourse harnesses emotions of compassion and outrage to build support for increased heightened border enforcement and crackdown on the predatorial smuggler “lurking in the wings” (p.93).

The Politics of Compassion raises a much-needed suspicion of the purported generosity and kindness associated with communities and politicians who seemingly open their hearts to the world’s exiled. Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have shown us new limits of compassion towards migrants and refugees, with the continued closing of borders towards asylum seekers and rising rates of infection among migrant workers employed in severely precarious conditions yet deemed essential labour to our pandemic recovery. What is needed, as Sirriyeh effectively advocates, is a refocusing of compassion that emphasizes solidarity and long-term commitment over a fleeting spectacle of selective public outcry.

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