ON THE FRONTLINE: Migrant children and the politics of compassion

ON THE FRONTLINE: Migrant children and the politics of compassion

Ala Sirriyeh

“I don’t want them to stop my father,” a child pleads in Spanish. “I don’t want them to deport him.” So begins the audio recording from inside a US Customs and Border Protection Facility released by ProPublica on Monday 18 June. We then hear the heart-wrenching sound of young children sobbing inconsolably as they cry out for their ‘Mami’ or ‘Papá’. These Central American children and their families are the latest victims of the Trump administration’s war on undocumented immigrants. On 6 April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the introduction of a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ under which people crossing the border into the US from Mexico without authorisation will be prosecuted; this includes those who subsequently attempt to request asylum as many Central Americans are doing having fled gang violence and persecution in their countries of origin. Between 19 April and 31 May, 1,995 minors were forcibly separated from their families at the border as their parents were detained.

Recent revelations of the inadequate and inhumane conditions in the detention facilities or ‘tender age’ shelters in which young children are being housed, and the trauma being experienced by the children and their parents, have prompted a national and international condemnation of this practice. Trump has often boasted about his front cover appearances in Time magazine. However, the magazine’s latest cover is unlikely to make it on to his office wall; in the July issue he is featured facing down a sobbing Honduran toddler alongside the caption ‘Welcome to America’. The little girl was photographed by Getty photographer John Moore as her mother was searched at the US – Mexico border. Although it has since emerged that the mother and child may not have been separated, the image has become symbolic of the impact of Trump’s latest immigration policy and the moral outcry that it has precipitated.  In the face of this critique (including perhaps from his own wife), on Wednesday 20 June Trump issued an Executive Order reversing this policy. However, children are now to be detained alongside their families rather than being released into the community as their cases are processed, and the Trump administration is attempting to pave the way for indefinite detention.

In light of expressions of horror and the consequent outpouring of sentiments of compassion in response to the drowning of three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, in September 2015 and the Guardian’s 2016 expose of the endemic abuse faced by children detained on Nauru, could the latest scandal in border violence signal the arrival of the US’ own ‘compassion earthquake’ (Sigona and Gamlen, 2018: xiii)?  In my new book, The Politics of Compassion: Immigration and Asylum Policy, I have explored how we might understand such moments that interrupt the seemingly unrelenting hostile discourses which characterise contemporary debates on immigration in the Global North. It is unsurprising that in a context of heightened border controls and restrictive reception conditions for many migrants, academic literature examining the role of emotion in immigration and asylum policy has focused predominantly on ‘negative’ hostile emotions and on the exclusionary and repressive practices with which they are linked. However, this predominant focus, while offering necessary and valuable insights, can overlook how those attempting to counter and resist restrictive immigration and asylum policies and practices engage with humanising emotions and the challenges and paradoxes in doing so.

Meanwhile, the predominant focus on ‘negative’ emotions, can obscure how seemingly humanising emotions are also used to enforce and justify repression. In the book I argue that ‘compassion’ has been called for and enacted by both implementers and opponents of immigration policies, often building on the colonial origins of the use of this discourse in reference to racialised others. In doing so, these voices on both sides of the debate have grounded compassion within a relationship of power disparity, control and subjugation. However, there is also evidence of possibilities for alternative engagements with compassion that are grounded in solidarity, and which offer more promising modes of responding to and resisting suffering and social injustice. Through the cases studies of the UK’s response to the refugee crisis; Australia’s offshore detention of refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea; and undocumented immigrant youth activism in the US, the book explores the relationship between compassion and other emotions in asylum and immigration policy discourses. It examines how this is manifested in practices of ‘compassionate refusals’ (justifying deterrence through compassion); ‘compassionate resistance’ (resistance to immigration to controls); and ‘withholding compassion’ (excluding people from recognition as deserving subjects of compassion).

Philosophers regard compassion – ‘a painful emotion directed at the serious suffering of another creature or creatures’ (Nussbaum, 2013:142) – as a basic social emotion because it is ‘a central bridge between the individual and the community and so it is conceived of as our species’ way of hooking the interests of others to our own personal goods’ (Nussbaum, 1996:28). Compassion as a moral sentiment guides us to judgements, but also actions. While sympathy for the suffering other is a key element, compassion moves beyond this by containing a directive to action to alleviate the suffering. This is reflected in the verb ‘to compassion’ which has fallen out of use (Garber, 2004). Historically there were two meanings of the term ‘compassion’: 1) indicating ‘co-suffering’ among equals, and 2) compassion shown at a distance to someone who is suffering from someone who is free from this suffering (Garber, 2004). The former fell out of use while the latter became the dominant definition and is more akin to contemporary definitions of ‘pity’ (Garber, 2004). The use of the latter definition has led to debate and divergent perspectives on who is deemed worthy of a compassionate response, what constitutes a compassionate response, and what outcome is envisioned through this action.

Moments of ‘compassionate resistance’ such as the public outcries and response to the harming of refugee and migrant children described above can serve as powerful (albeit often small and temporary) interruptions to violent border controls. For example, in the aftermath of Kurdi’s death and reports of the dire conditions facing unaccompanied minors in Europe, there was an exodus of British volunteers to the refugee camps on Europe’s borders, while the UK government briefly introduced a resettlement programme for unaccompanied minors caught up in the refugee crisis. As seen above, in the face of the condemnation of family separations, Trump has backed down from this policy, although replacing it with the highly unsatisfactory alternative of detaining children alongside their parents. However, framing action through compassion can also be problematic in terms of who is excluded from recognition as a legitimate subject of compassion, and also in relation to the terms under which those who are recognised are engaged with.

Compassion involves feeling and understanding someone’s experience as constituting suffering. This emotion explicitly impels people to a course of action that they believe will alleviate someone’s suffer. Although there may be some agreement on the overarching definition of compassion, the politics of compassion in immigration policy, and in social policy more broadly, demonstrates divergent mobilisations of this concept. The varying discourses of compassion reflect different understandings of who the ‘deserving’ sufferer is we should feel empathy for. They are also based on differing interpretations of our relationship and obligation to them, and of the most appropriate course of action to alleviate suffering. Most contemporary Western philosophical understandings of compassion have resonated with Aristotle’s concept of ‘pity’, which he outlined in Rhetoric. Martha Nussbaum (1996) has observed that this is more akin to the contemporary term ‘compassion’ than more condescending connotations of the term ‘pity’ today. Aristotle described pity (or compassion) as:

‘a painful emotion directed at another person’s misfortune or suffering (Rhet. 1385bl3ff). It requires and rests on three beliefs: that the suffering is serious rather than trivial; that the suffering was not caused primarily by the person’s own culpable actions; and that the pitier’s own possibilities are similar to those of the sufferer.’ (Nussbaum, 1996:31)

Nussbaum’s (2001:321) theorisation of compassion draws on the Aristotelian definition, but her explication of the third criteria for compassion is more expansive in her assertion that it is a ‘eudaimonistic judgment’ that ‘this person, or creature, is a significant element in my scheme of goals and projects, an end whose good is to be promoted’ rather than a narrower sense that this could or has happened to us. She posits that we are more likely to feel deep emotions in relation to people or events which ‘we are somehow connected to through our imagining of a valuable life’, that is if they are in our ‘circle of concern’ (Nussbaum, 2013:11).

Recent responses to the plight of migrant and refugee children demonstrate the power of the emotional regime of childhood to disrupt, or at least problematise, the hostile emotional regime of asylum and immigration. This perhaps explains why children, especially young children, are often the face of refugee and migrant rights campaigns. The political aesthetics of immigration and childhood can be drawn on to explore why the images we have seen of these children have evoked a response of compassion.

Engaging with the work of Jacques Rancière, Brad Evans (2017:1) argues that the photographs of Alan Kurdi resonated with the notion of the ‘intolerable’. He defines the intolerable as that which ‘disrupt[s] the aesthetic field of perception’ and causes ‘a fundamental rupture or breakthrough in how we come to see the world’ (Evans, 2017:1). ‘Too difficult to bear, yet impossible to ignore’, the images of Alan Kurdi were intolerable (Evans, 2017:2). In my book I argue that the images of Alan on the Turkish beach were encountered and narrated in a way that engaged with the emotional regimes of childhood and national identity, in doing so mapping on to the criteria for compassion outlined by Nussbaum (2013). The testimony was compelling to audiences because it was experienced as intolerable through its simultaneous familiarity (the child lying as if asleep, the child on a holiday beach), yet extraordinary horror.

However, seemingly humanising emotions are also used to enforce and justify repression While sentiments of compassion have been extended to some migrant and refugee children, young people whose ages (and innocence) have been disputed, migrant men, those who display agency rather than passive vulnerability, and others who fall outside the criteria of compassion discussed above, have found that compassion has been withheld from them and that their exclusion has been reinforced. Meanwhile, as Lauren Berlant (2004) has shown through her discussion of ‘compassionate conservatism’, ‘compassion’ has been used to promote policies and practices that many would contend are entirely uncompassionate; yet these have still been claimed as compassionate through appealing to a particular logic and moral framing of this emotion.

The European Union and Australia governments have expressed their desire to prevent deaths at sea and stop migrants and refugees falling into the hands of evil smugglers – a contemporary racialised bogeyman – as justification for preventing refugees arriving through irregular routes to seek sanctuary, while simultaneously providing no safe and legal route for them. In effect this is a policy of saving by drowning. In 2014, facing an increase in the numbers of unaccompanied minors arriving at the US- Mexico border, US Customs and Border Enforcement launched The Danger Awareness Campaign in Central America and the US targeted at migrants and their families in a similar bid to frame the prevention of travel through irregular routes through a rhetoric of concern for safety. As I write, US Vice President, Mike Pence, has once again reiterated the message that, out of his concern for their welfare, would-be migrants should refrain from travelling ‘illegally’ to the US.

With its imperative to action, the interruptions seen recently to hostile immigration and asylum discourses have shown that compassion can be a powerful emotion of resistance, although it is often a last resort. Yet, when there is distance and unequal power dynamics in the compassionate relationship, it also risks producing several forms of refusal.

Berlant, L. (2004) ‘Compassion (and withholding)’, in L. Berlant (ed) Compassion: the culture and politics of an emotion, New York: Routledge, pp. 1-14.
Evans, B. (2017) ‘Dead in the waters’, in A. Baldwin and G. Bettini (eds) Life adrift: critical reflections on climate change and migration. Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 59-78.
Garber, M. (2004) ‘Compassion’, in L. Berlant (ed) Compassion: the culture and politics of an emotion, New York: Routledge, pp. 15-28.
Nussbaum, M. (1996) ‘Compassion: the basic social emotion’, Social Philosophy and Politics, 13(1): 27-58.
Nussbaum, M. (2013) Political emotions: why love matters for justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Sigona, N. and Gamlen, A. (2018) ‘Series Preface’, in A. Sirriyeh, The Politics of Compassion: Immigration and Asylum Policy, Bristol: Bristol University Press.


Ala Sirriyeh is a Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Liverpool. Her research is in the field of migration and refugee studies, with a particular focus on the experiences of children and young people, and on topics relating to identity, belonging and activism. Her new book The Politics of Compassion: Immigration and Asylum Policy was published by Bristol University Press in June 2018 and is the first book published in the Global Migration and Social Change series.