Rights or Philanthropy: Emotions of Solidarity with Refugees

Published 1 March 2016 / By Serhat Karakayali

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Refugee advocates often emphasize our legal obligation to provide protection to anyone fleeing persecution or war in their home countries. The protection of strangers, to refer to Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace “is not a question of philanthropy but of right.” But Kantianism, it appears these days, is not a very powerful paradigm when it comes to migration politics. The “merely” legal point of view that refugees according to international law have the right to cross borders and apply for asylum in any state, codified in the principle of “non-refoulement” and the Geneva Convention, seems rather negligible considering the atmosphere of a state of exception evoked by many politicians and opinion makers throughout Europe (Massumi 1993).

Emotional shift

refugees_welcomeIn contrast, it seems what Kant dismayed as a “philanthropic” stance plays an important role in how Europeans want to assess the cause of refugees. In the last two years, together with my colleague Olaf Kleist, we have studied the emerging movement of volunteers for refugees in Germany (see Karakayali/Kleist 2015). Although our findings showed that the number of volunteers was continuously rising over the last few years, the extremely positive reactions towards refugees starting from end of August 2015 took us, as many observed, by surprise. How to explain the acts of hospitality displayed both by huge numbers of individuals and the vast majority of media and civil society, including many big companies, in Germany? Something seemed to really have changed, when tabloids such as BILD pick up and – until this day – use the slogan “Refugees Welcome”. When a conservative member of parliament (Philipp Lengsfeld, CDU) recently criticized the newspaper for framing the issue as “too emotional” and that its attitude would “invite” refugees to come to Europe, the chief editor of BILD online, Julian Reichelt, responded in an open letter. Referring to the image of a refugee child crawling under a barbed wire fence, which drew the MPs criticism, the editor replied in a somewhat contradictory way. On the one hand, he rejected the notion that the image was emotional at all, while at the same time he placed it in relation to the “disgrace at the European borders” compared to which the image’s effect would remain “mild”. The reason for the ambivalence in the editor’s reaction might be found in the misunderstanding the interaction was based upon. Both pretended to talk about the role of emotions in general. What was really at stake was the legitimacy of the empathy evoked by the image. The conservative critic was worried about the child.

The deserving refugee

The negative reputation of emotions notwithstanding, there is evidence that the shift of public opinion concerning refugees was less informed by reasoning or the reference to the Geneva Convention, but by the mobilization of feelings of empathy towards refugees.

According to our survey, volunteers who started to welcome refugees in 2015 – compared to those who were already engaged for a few years – stated significantly that “emotional experiences” were increasingly important for them. Also, a recent study of Twitter Data showed that users throughout Europe increasingly employed the term “refugee” – as opposed to migrant – in their messages after the viral distribution of images of Aylan Kurdi, the Kurdish boy, whose dead body was found on a beach at the Turkish coast on 2nd September (Vis and Goriunova 2015). It is no coincidence that it was the image of a child that initiated this wave of empathy. Images and narratives about refugees in the first weeks of the crisis were often depicting women and children, or families – while their actual numbers, compared to single male asylum seekers, remained low. One reason for this is that in a philanthropic (or humanitarian) relationship the recipients of help have to be framed as “deserving”, that is, they have to appear as not responsible for their condition and, equally important, they have to display gratefulness (Boltanski 2004). Both conditions were met: Children are generally considered an extremely vulnerable group and during the first days of the crisis, many refugees in Budapest and Vienna held up posters with the portrait of Angela Merkel. During this event, what I call a philanthropic “agencement” (Deleuze/Guattari 1980) was established, i.e. the formation of an affective block between refugees and large parts of the German population.

Shaky ground for solidarity?

Critics of the seemingly new emotional trend in politics (Robert 2016) have argued that citizens become passivized by merely emotionally reacting to media-driven events – instead of referring to reason. What comes immediately into mind in the case of public support for refugees is the instability of such a block. Once the representation of refugees, or immigrants at large, as deserving is damaged (as by the New Year’s Eve events in Cologne) the whole procedure might be reversed. This volatility perfectly resonates with the dichotomy between victims and villains (Anderson 2008) that has governed the politics of migration for decades.

However, as data from our recent survey suggests, this does not apply to volunteers, who have been active over a longer period of time. This suggests that face-to-face interactions between citizens and migrants, is one way to break out of the cycle of volatility. In this sense, it might be worth considering investing in the volunteer movement, where citizens do not depend on mass and social media when it comes to the emotional dimension of their relation to migrants and refugees.


Anderson, Bridget (2008) ‘Illegal immigrant: Victim or Villain?’ COMPAS Working Paper No. 64, University of Oxford.

Boltanski, Luc (2004) ‘Distant suffering: morality, media, and politics’ Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari (1987) ‘A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia’ Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Vis, Farida, & Goriunova, Olga (Eds.) (2015) ‘The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi’. Published by the Visual Social Media Lab December 2015.

Kant, Immanuel (1983/1795) ‘Perpetual peace, and other essays on politics, history, and morals’ Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Karakayali, Serhat/ Kleist, Olaf (2015) ‘Strukturen und Motive der ehrenamtlichen Flüchtlingsarbeit in Deutschland’ mit Olaf Kleist, online erschienen

Massumi, Brian (1993) ‘The Politics of everyday fear’ Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert, Anne-Cécile (2016) ‘La stratégie de l’émotion’ Le Monde diplomatique, February 2016, p. 3.

About the Author: Dr. Serhat Karakayali is a sociologist and currently works as a Researcher at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He was also a COMPAS Visiting Academic.