Refugee crisis, compassion and Eastern Europe

Losing Europeanness

Europe map puzzleEvery crisis dismantles and produces Europeanness anew. Greek Europeanness was recently questioned by the financial ‘core of Europe’ led by Germany because Greece refused to behave like a responsible economic subject. In the context of the current refugee crisis, the now moral ‘core of Europe’—once again led by Germany—is juxtaposed to the failed Europeanness of what has emerged as generic ‘Eastern Europe’.

Several Eastern European member states of the European Union objected to the proposed refugee quotas. There were protests in various cities in Eastern Europe against accepting refugees. There were also counter-protests, counter-arguments, and counter-actions. Nevertheless, the liberally inclined print and online media on both sides of the Atlantic quickly filled with commentaries that accused ‘Eastern Europeans’ of lacking compassion and tried to shame them into moral maturity and, by extension, agreeable politics.[1] Some suggested that Eastern Europe was stuck in the rhetoric of suffering, unable to evolve from recipients to providers of assistance. Others wondered whether Eastern Europeans could see the irony in refusing assistance to those in need when they had received so much assistance during the long 20th century. Had they not learned anything from history? Why were Eastern Europeans so racist and xenophobic?

Disagreeable politics and attitudes were traced to moral failures, which amounted to failed Europeanness. Even those who eschewed moralizing began by securing their own Europeanness by distancing from Eastern Europe’s ‘staggering lack of compassion’.[2] In the midst of a spectacular political failure, the moral goodness of the ‘core of Europe’ was reasserted.[3]

Compassion as a political virtue

Compassion deployed in this fashion is not a ‘private sentiment.’[4] It is a political virtue expected to extend to strangers and to inform liberal politics. In this form—as a political virtue with universal value—it has been widely criticized for its depoliticizing and even repressive effects.[5]

According to Hannah Arendt, the private sentiment of compassion risks turning into pity when brought into the public arena, thus preventing engagement with fellow ‘men’ [sic] as political equals.[6] Compassion as a political virtue—not unlike tolerance as a political virtue—does not posit such equality. Instead, it posits a hierarchical relationship between the subjects and objects of compassion.[7] Public compassion is about both fellow feeling and distancing. It can be extended to strangers (they are almost like us!) and to marginalized group members (they are not really like us!). In the midst of refugee crisis, it has also become part of a civilizational discourse extended towards Eastern Europe.

Political opportunity?

Regardless of what one thinks of the asylum politics of Eastern European member states and of the attitudes of their citizens, attributing such politics and attitudes to collective moral failures is a move that needs to be carefully rethought. It is hardly the case that Eastern Europeans are less human in their capacity for compassion than their Western European counterparts. The difference seems to lie in the fact that they either do not use the sentiment of compassion as a basis for politics or limit its application to a particular nation, race or religion.

And yet, Eastern Europeans are grappling with tensions that define Europe beyond particular nation-states: the tension between liberal politics and national states, the tension between the needs of populations impoverished by austerity measures and the needs of refugees, and the tension between proclamations of ‘European values’ and the on-going ghettoization of marginal Europeans and asylum seekers in cities across Europe.

Fence with barbed wireEastern European members of the public, government officials, border guards, and journalists have been learning about these tensions, especially asylum politics, through the media, trips to Western Europe, and a variety of training and twinning programmes. For example, Latvian border guards and government officials have worked with their Finnish, Swedish, French and Belgian counterparts to implement border controls and asylum instruments. They seem to have learned the ‘common law of repression’, but not the redemptive virtue of compassion.[8]

Should Eastern Europeans be taught to accept compassion as a political virtue to be extended to suffering subjects beyond their immediate circles of kinship? It seems unlikely that embracing public compassion will resolve Europe’s definitive tensions and the concrete problems that arise from them. Perhaps the difference that has emerged between Eastern and Western Europe in the context of the refugee crisis is a political opportunity to address these tensions without obscuring them by a moralizing discourse.

  1. For examples, see: Lyman 2015; Gross 2015; Simecka & Tallis 2015; Rupnik 2015; Komorovskis 2015; Krastev 2015; Sabet-Parry 2015; Hockenos 2015; Gressel 2015; Roland 2015.
  2. See Krastev 2015.
  3. See Böröcz 2006 for an early critique. See also Dzenovska 2013.
  4. Arendt 1990; Canovan 1992.
  5. For examples see Ticktin 2011; Fassin 2005, 2011; Bornstein 2012. See also Weiss 2015 and Feldman 2013 for counter-arguments.
  6. Arendt 1990.
  7. For critical analysis of the political virtue of tolerance, see Brown 2006 & Dzenovska n.d.
  8. Fassin 2005: 375.


  • Arendt, Hannah. 1990 [1965]. On Revolution. Penguin Books.
  • Bornstein, Erika. 2012. Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Böröcz, Joseph. 2006. ‘Goodness is Elsewhere: The Rule of European Difference’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 48 (1): 110-137.
  • Brown, Wendy. 2006. Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Canovan, Margaret. 1992. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dzenovska, Dace. n.d. Complicit Becoming: Tolerance and Europeanization After Socialism. Manuscript in preparation.
  • Dzenovska, Dace. 2013. ‘Historical Agency and the Coloniality of Power in Postsocialist Europe’. Anthropological Theory 13(4): 394-416.
  • Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Fassin, Didier. 2005. ‘Compassion and repression: The moral economy of immigration policies in France’, Cultural Anthropology 20(3): 362-387.
  • Feldman, Gregory. 2013. ‘The specific intellectual’s pivotal position: action, compassion and thinking in administrative society, an Arendtian view’. Social Anthropology 21(2): 135-154.
  • Gressel, Gustav. 2015. ‘Understanding Eastern European attitudes on refugees’. European Council on Foreign Relations. September 11.
  • Gross, Jan T. 2015. ‘Eastern Europe’s Crisis of Shame’. Project Syndicate. September 16.
  • Hockenos, Paul. 2015. ‘The Stunning Hypocrisy of Mitteleuropa’. Foreign Policy. September 12.
  • Krastev, Ivan. 2015. ‘Eastern Europe’s Compassion Deficit’. The New York Times. September 8.
  • Komorovskis, Broņislavs. 2015. ‘Cilvēcības vārdā’. Ir. September 18.
  • Lyman, Rick. 2015. ‘Eastern block’s resistance to refugees highlights Europe’s cultural and political divisions’. The New York Times. September 12.
  • Roland, Gerard. 2015. ‘Why the rift between Eastern and Western Europe on the refugee crisis?’ The Berkeley Blog. September 9.
  • Rupnik, Jacques. 2015. ‘The Other Europe’. Eurozine. September 16.
  • Sabet-Parry, Rayyan & Karl Ritter. 2015. ‘Scant sympathy for refugees in Europe’s ex-communist East’. The Business Insider. September 11.
  • Simecka, Michal & Benjamin Tallis. 2015. ‘Fighting the wrong battle: A crisis of liberal democracy, not migration’. openDemocracy. September 16.
  • Smilov, Daniel. 2015. ‘The argument against compassion: Europe and the refugees’. openDemocracy. September 14.
  • Ticktin, Miriam. 2011. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Weiss, Erica. 2015. ‘Provincializing empathy: Humanitarian sentiment and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’. Anthropological Theory 15(3): 275-292.
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Which migration journal has the highest Impact Factor?

By Carlos Vargas-Silva, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory

Migration StudiesIn March 2013 I joined several friends to launch the Migration Studies journal. We had been working hard on the concept for over a year, but doubts always remained. Would top researchers submit papers to the journal? What about young upcoming scholars? Would they risk submitting their research to a brand new publication? Can a new journal have a significant impact on migration research? It has been over two years since that moment and it is now possible to provide some answers to these questions.

One obvious way to explore the influence of a journal is to see how it compares to other journals in the field. The most popular metric to compare journals is the ISI Impact Factor. This is a measure of the frequency with which the ‘average article’ in the journal has been cited in a given year. It is an imperfect measure, but so are all other available measures.

There are three other journals listed in the ISI ‘Demography’ category with the word ‘migration’ in the title: International Migration (IM), International Migration Review (IMR) and the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (JEMS). Some other listed journals such as Population, Space and Place also publish a lot of migration related research, while others such as the Journal of Refugee Studies focus on a particular type of migration. But these three journals (IM, IMR and JEMS) are the ones publishing exclusively on migration and about all types of migration, and all have been in existence for a long time, so we have good data as a basis for comparison (both IM and IMR recently celebrated their 50th anniversaries). These three journals provide the best comparison for Migration Studies.

Figure 1 shows the Impact Factor of these three migration journals since 2010. In the past, IMR had the highest Impact Factor, but has been surpassed by JEMS in recent years. In fact, the gap between these two journals increased over the last year. Meanwhile, IM has being in third place for the whole period and with a noticeable negative trend in its Impact Factor. In that sense, JEMS is the migration journal with the highest official ISI Impact Factor.

Figure 1

As a new journal Migration Studies is currently awaiting its first Social Science Citation Index listing. However, Oxford University Press (OUP) has followed the same methodology to estimate the impact factor of Migration Studies in 2014. As shown in Figure 1, the estimated Impact Factor is way above the other three journals. If Migration Studies were officially listed (currently in process) it would have the highest Impact Factor among these migration journals. Impact Factors go up and down over time, so it is impossible to be certain about future dynamics, but it seems like a great start for a new journal.

For those of you who have not been able to read articles from Migration Studies, here is your chance. For a short period of time OUP has made a large selection of articles from the journal available for FREE. This includes three of my favourites:

What determines attitudes to immigration in European countries? An analysis at the regional level by Yvonni Markaki and Simonetta Longhi

The effect of income and immigration policies on international migration by Francesc Ortega and Giovanni Peri

Happiness and ‘economic migration’: A comparison of Eastern European migrants and stayers by David Bartram


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Immigration and Austerity: Only Connect

By Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration and Citizenship and Deputy Director of COMPAS

welcome refugeesThere have been two big shifts in British public debate in recent months. The first is the growing discontent with the politics of austerity, most evident in the startling election of Jeremy Corbyn. The second is the popular groundswell of support for refugees. A few months ago, who would have anticipated demonstrations proclaiming “Refugees are welcome here”? However, unless anti-austerity politics addresses migrants’ rights, and support for refugees extends to those marginalised by the cuts to welfare, both movements will be fatally weakened.

It has become commonplace for politicians of all parties to recite standard references to the Huguenots and Jews and Britain’s ‘proud history of welcoming refugees’ as a prelude to introducing ever harsher immigration and asylum laws. Over the summer months, confronted with the deaths, violence and misery at the borders of Europe and the port of Calais, such claims began to increasingly ring hollow. The government has clearly recognised the strength of public sentiment and David Cameron has promised to accept 4,000 refugees a year from camps in Syria. Many local authorities are willing to support this initiative, but they are calling for more money to fund the housing, school places and other local services that this will require. For local authorities are, as we know, extremely hard pressed. We have seen drastic cuts across the board in care provision, libraries and leisure facilities, infrastructure maintenance, community centres and other services. We have also seen dramatic rises in poverty for people living in the UK. Bedroom tax and benefit caps have hit the most vulnerable British residents – the necessary price, we are told, to balance the books.

George Osborne has proposed to redirect money from the foreign aid budget to cover the costs for one year. This is a financial move reminiscent of the Newton Fund, which saw the transfer of 365 million pounds from DfID to BIS to support science and innovation partnerships with researchers from middle income countries, meaning the money could go towards the government target of 0.7% of GDP on international development while also being counted as part of the UK’s science budget. It is, one might argue, an interesting recognition of the relation between development and global mobility.

It is not only the Treasury offering monies. There has been an unprecedented show of public support for new arrivals, and people are promising to open their houses to refugees from Syria in particular. This is an exciting development, but it is possible, though not easy, to live with strangers (who, it may turn out, one does not particularly get on with, and who may be unable to find work, ending up sitting at home all day under stress about their longer term prospects). It is even less easy to live with them as equals. Such generous gestures will require considerable support after the initial wave of enthusiasm has worn off.

homelessnessBut in the genuine wave of support for welcoming refugees there has been a surprising silence about the situation of asylum seekers already in the UK. Some organisations – RAMFEL for example – have been making the connections between refusal of entry to the UK on the one hand, and the deliberate production of a ‘hostile environment’ for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants inside the UK on the other. This began with the Labour Government’s pursuit of ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and has been allowed to gather pace with very little public criticism. Asylum seekers have to wait months or years for the outcome of their asylum claim, during which time they are not allowed to work and are allocated just £5 a day cash or card support.  Those who are refused have access to nothing, even if it is accepted that their country is too dangerous of them to return to. Destitution is a serious problem for these people. New refugees may be welcome, but long-term resident asylum seekers can be found sleeping outside your local supermarket.

Levels of poverty are increasing in the UK, and not only for asylum seekers. How will the promises of support extended to Syrian refugees be perceived by the hundreds of thousands of people who have had their benefits stopped or capped, who are sofa surfing, scraping by on minimum wage salaries, or dependent on working tax credits that are soon to disappear? Or the people on housing lists or going to food banks who see that Syrians are accommodated but not them? If we are to avoid a competition between marginalised and impoverished groups it is necessary to make the argument that better services for Syrian arrivals must mean better services for everybody. This takes supporters of refugees off the terrain of humanitarian responses, and demands they argue for common interests rather than special cases. We can all agree that the current situation needs bold thinking and new paradigms. I would suggest that connecting the discontent with austerity and support for migrants is a critical first step.

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Immigration Acts and health bills

By: Myriam Cherti, Senior Researcher, COMPAS

The Immigration Act 2014 heralds a new ‘crackdown’ on so-called ‘health tourism’ in the UK. The two main changes to health policy that it enacts are designed to control the supposed ‘burden’ that immigrants place on NHS finances by limiting access and recovering costs.

Firstly, the government is changing the definition of ‘ordinarily resident’. This is the status of lawful and proper settlement, previously with no minimum period of residence required, that confers entitlement to an NHS number and, with it, free NHS healthcare. The definition is being restricted to include only those with indefinite leave to remain and to exclude anyone who is subject to immigration control or who has not been in the UK for at least five years.

Secondly, temporary non-European migrants are now expected to pay an obligatory health surcharge of £200 (£150 for students) per year of their stay as part of their visa application process in advance of their arrival in the UK. Some immigrants, such as asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking are exempt from the surcharge.

Doctors though tend to treat everyone who comes through the door, whether of their General Practice (GP) surgery or their hospital’s Accident & Emergency (A&E) wing, as if they have funding in place and they tend not to ask patients about money. Understandably, they view themselves as ‘docs not cops’ and see that potential conflicts of interest loom large between the confidential, patient-centered care they are sworn to deliver and the immigration enforcement activity with which the Home Office wants their help.

Policing healthcare

It is difficult to police immigration in a healthcare setting. Immigrants themselves often do not know what free healthcare they qualify for. One cannot judge someone’s immigration status by external appearance or foreign language use. Doctors receive no mandatory training on issues of immigration status and generally steer clear of involvement in its enforcement. There are no systematic checks on a patient’s immigration status in healthcare settings, although upon initial presentation questions are encouraged about someone’s background if clinically relevant.

Hospitals do have clerical staff in Overseas Offices to whom foreign patients can be referred by clinicians to check on their eligibility for free care, although such referrals are infrequent. Sometimes, by the time a referral is followed up, the patient has been treated and left. It can then be extremely difficult to trace patients who have only been in hospital for a brief time.

In a notable recent development, plain-clothed Home Office immigration staff are now stationed undercover in some hospitals’ A&E departments and maternity wards as part of an initiative to identify patients who may be chargeable for their treatment because of their immigration status. Such initiatives are perhaps more likely in hospitals near to major ports of entry such as Heathrow airport or the St Pancras Eurostar Terminal.

Clearly, there is a danger that, as the government makes healthcare a more hostile and more costly environment for migrants, individual poorly migrants may delay their presentation, skipping primary care altogether and turning up at A&E further down the line when their illness is further progressed. For them, of course, this can have profoundly negative medical implications.

The government may be wielding a cumbersome sledgehammer to crack a tiny nut. Despite certain politicians’ rhetoric, there is little evidence of widespread ‘health tourism’ to the UK, which, according to imprecise government estimates, may cost the country’s health system in the region of £70 million a year – a drop in the £100 billion NHS England ocean. In a survey of migrants visiting Doctors of the World’s specialist clinic in Bethnal Green in east London, fewer than 3 per cent of respondents cited health problems as a reason for their migration to Britain. It seems highly likely that a complex bureaucracy to police immigration status in the NHS would therefore cost more than it might save, especially given the difficulties of recouping costs from those who can’t afford to pay. Moreover, let us not forget that there are Brits too who spend whole lifetimes abroad and then return to the UK in their latter years for free NHS treatment, having paid next to nothing in UK taxes along the way.

The prospect of the government consulting on extending charges for certain migrants further into initial primary care and A&E remains. These services are currently free and provided on the basis of need rather than ability to pay. Very few irregular migrants attend GP surgeries anyway as things stand: one has to register with a GP before seeing a doctor, and it is very hard to register if one is here irregularly. Instead, undocumented migrants tend to wait longer for symptoms to develop and then go straight to hospital, presenting in A&E where their emergency treatment ends up being more expensive to the NHS than preventative interventions would have been earlier in the development of their disease.

The Home Office is intent on enlisting the support of other Whitehall departments in its immigration enforcement work. Health, however, seems to be the public policy area in which the cost-benefit analysis of such an approach is least convincing and where professional cultural resistance is especially strong. Put simply, no doctor swears their Hippocratic oath so that they can help out with border patrol. As for the rest of us, do we really want health checks as checkpoints or médicins comme frontières?


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People move

By: Ben Doherty, Thomson Reuters Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and reporter for Guardian Australia ( @BenDohertyCorro)

The history of humanity is a history of migration.

Since the earliest movement of Homo erectus out of Africa across Eurasia, humankind has had reason and way to move from one place to another. Sometimes that movement is orderly, planned, and peaceful, but, as often, it is harried and desperate, a violent expulsion of large numbers of people fleeing persecution, war, famine or other natural disaster. Throughout history, communities, polities, and civilisations have been destroyed, supplanted, or enriched by inflows of people from foreign cultures and alien ethnic groups.

People have always moved, but now – today – more people are unwillingly displaced from their homes than at any time since the end of World War II. That displacement is sustained: more than three million Syrians remain forced from their homeland by four years of conflict in that country; 130,000 Burmese ethnic minorities perennially huddled in camps on the Thai border, and; more than a million Afghans living, with varying levels of official sanction, in Pakistan, some for more than 30 years.

But two near-concurrent crises in the Mediterranean and the Andaman seas in April and May, followed by the mass migration of tens of thousands across Europe in the past weeks, have brought the issue of asylum seekers from the abstract – a discussion of numbers, of people-smuggling ‘rackets’, and of push-and-pull factors – into the personal.

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