Playing favourites: Humanitarian Crises in the Public Consciousness





Written by Alexandra Sutton 

A ‘crisis’ can be characterised as a period of turmoil in which tension reaches a head. It originates from the Greek ‘krisis’, meaning ‘decision’ – it is a breaking point, it signifies the beginning of an end, and it necessitates action. T.S. Eliot, for example, forces ‘a moment to its crisis’ in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – however long that moment of pressure has really been, it’ll be resolved after the crisis. When we look back at history, we tend to associate certain finite periods of crisis with certain generations, and those associations are fuelled by whatever humanitarian issues dominated the media at that point. The same principle applies to the current refugee crisis. We are flooded with images of drowning children and makeshift camps, we read broadsheet op-eds and tabloid outrage, we share and tweet and hack at our keyboards. Celebrities make appeals and politicians make speeches.

At this point, the reader may have noticed that I’ve not yet specified the ‘current refugee crisis’ in this piece. I don’t really need to – today, we associate the phrase ‘refugee crisis’ as an offshoot of the conflict in Syria, and we are not necessarily wrong to do so. It’s easily the most prominent refugee situation in the public consciousness, and at risk of sounding gauche, it’s almost ‘trendy.’ The idea of a crisis as a fixed point does not apply in international conflict and global politics, and indeed, there are of course multiple crises occurring at any one time. With our gaze locked firmly on the Middle East, it’s easy to forget that the people fleeing terror, persecution and conflict are more diverse in their origin.

An estimated 13.9 million people were newly displaced in 2014. The number of people displaced daily has increased fourfold since 2010, and shows little sign of decreasing. Unsurprisingly, refugees from the Syrian Arab Republic comprise the largest refugee group in the world at present (estimated 3.9 million), with Afghanistan falling to the second largest group for the first time in 30 years (2.6 million). Other than Iraq (369,900) and Myanmar (479,000), the other significant nations are all located on the African continent – Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Eritrea.

These latter nations feature much less heavily in international news and are much less prominent in the public consciousness, which raises the question: do we place different value on different types of humanitarian crises? Conflict in the Middle East, though thousands of miles away, often feels unsettlingly close to home. For Western millenials, the ‘War on Terror’ has been the dominant international political narrative of our lifetime. 9/11 was the symbolic beginning, followed by a smattering of other attacks around Europe, the war in Iraq, and the terminology of terror becoming part of our everyday vocabulary: home-grown terrorists, jihadi warfare, Islamism, radicalisation – and so on. It’s perhaps for this reason that the consequential damage of these conflicts weighs so heavy on our attitude toward the refugee crisis – as a nation, and as individuals, we feel inevitably entangled in Middle Eastern issues whether we understand it and whether we agree with it or not.

Equally, and obviously, an attack on Paris feels, and is, closer to home than suicide attacks in Niger, or persecution in Eritrea. In that vein, it’s important to note refugees from Syria are the victims of a regime that wants to be seen. Media coverage is their greatest tool, and so naturally those fleeing are also subject to this attention. Countries like Eritrea, and North Korea, operate on a completely opposite principle. Eritrea is alleged to be one of the worst nations for human rights abuses in the world, controlled by an extremely reclusive, secretive authoritarian regime. A recent UN report, and reports by Human Rights Watch raise concerns about indefinite conscription, accusations of torture and little to no freedom of expression – ‘disappearances’ are common and the parliament hasn’t met since 2002. Despite this, to your average person in the West the danger feels less immediate, and therefore less attention is paid.

The rapid deterioration in Syria is part of a wider, more easily definable narrative than the trouble the African nations. The ‘fight against ISIS’ and Al-Qaida before them can be too easily dichotomised as the fight between good and evil, between East and West. It’s perhaps notable that when we think of humanitarian trouble geographically, Africa is arguably more frequently associated with famine and disease, as opposed to civil warfare and violence.

The psychology of charity is incredibly complex, but the question remains – do we have an ethical responsibility to consider all international crises equally? Is our sympathy necessarily mitigated by politics, the history of the conflict or the immediacy of the danger? However we look at a situation, however much we consider it, it’s virtually impossible to remove oneself from those considerations. At present, the conflict in Syria and the refugees in Europe, wherever they have come from, are being manipulated into a story of European political drama, and therefore they will be at the forefront of the public consciousness. In reality, that wider narrative must be contextualised by the individuals that comprise it – when we focus in on one story, on one humanitarian issue, we’re at risk of saying that the life of one refugee is worth more than another.

All statistics taken from UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2014 Report:



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