The Refugee Crisis and Moral Boundaries

By Marie-Eve Hamel (Staff writer)

Over the past few years, the world has witnessed the biggest refugee crisis since WWII. While some European countries initially accommodated this mass flow of refugees, it took a photograph of the body of a small child on a beach to finally humanise these stories and bring public attention to these initially distant and disembodied experiences. With this photograph, refugees moved from being purely statistics to becoming, in the eyes of the Western world, mothers, fathers, and children fleeing war and persecution.

Photo: REUTERS/Nilufer Demir/DHA

Photo: REUTERS/Nilufer Demir/DHA

I personally witnessed this shift in public consciousness at a film screening in Edinburgh on the civil war in Syria, where attendees discussed how this photograph changed their perceptions of refugees and how it encouraged them to learn more about the situation in Syria and elsewhere. It seemed that for the first time, a certain closeness and identification with refugees was achieved, and this popular consciousness had the result of influencing certain state policies. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the release of this photograph, the UK government announced that it would welcome thousands of refugees on UK soil.[1]

Despite the reluctance of certain European states to admit refugees, the public became sympathetic to the turmoil experienced by displaced individuals, and local initiatives started to provide aid and support to refugees. For a few months, personal stories of displacement were shared on social and print media, and public and political narratives emphasized the rights of refugees.

As a student involved with a charity aimed at shedding light on the experiences of displaced children, I was very hopeful for the changes I observed in my social networks. But more recently, the events in Paris brought violence and terror on European soil. At that moment, the violence that was still distant and disembodied became tangible. The 130 individuals who died during these attacks became victims of the same violence and terror from which some refugees were also fleeing.

However, instead of a growing sense of unity with refugees, based on a shared identification as ‘victims’[2], I was surprised to observe that these events have, in some cases, led to discrimination against refugees. This was most immediately evidenced by exclusionary discourses wishing to restrain their access to safety in Europe. For example, some individuals are pushing their governments to close borders to refugees, with countries like Sweden introducing border controls. In my social networks, those same individuals who, a few months ago, were discussing how they could assist refugees in Europe, are now supporting further border controls and restrictions.

These discourses of exclusion are justified by the need for security and are grounded in policies of territorial control and boundaries. However, it seems that at the core of these narratives is an understanding shared by many that these displaced men, women, and children from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc., are excluded from their moral concerns.

Indeed, all communities share a set of moral values and social norms that help delimit who is included or excluded from the group. In order to be included in this moral community, individuals need to either engage in behaviours or possess characteristics that are deemed moral and acceptable. Access to the community involves access to the benefits and resources of that group, and those excluded from the boundaries of the community are therefore also excluded from the benefits available to the in-group.[3]

Opotow, Gerson and Woodside (2005) have also suggested that those inside of boundaries for fairness ‘are morally included and seen as deserving fair treatment. Those outside are morally excluded, beyond our moral concerns, and eligible for deprivation, exploitation and other harms that might be ignored or condoned as normal, inevitable and deserved’[4].

Observing the recent narratives about refugees, I started to wonder if, despite the refugee crisis being ‘humanised’, it seems that the cultural, political, and social distance between ‘Us’ (Westerners) and ‘Them’ (refugees, ‘migrants’) has not sufficiently eroded to foster unity. Now that the experiences of displacement have reached our doorstep, many would prefer limiting the access of refugees to the resources and security available to the in-group. This may be a reflection of these moral boundaries where, for many Westerners, refugees are not only perceived as part of the out-group, but also as outside their moral community. For some, this cultural, social, and political distance renders refugees ineligible to receive the benefits of the host community, and therefore beyond their moral concerns.

I believe this to be extremely problematic. If Western states and their populations do not feel morally compelled to act, if they choose to ignore the harms committed to refugees, and if they choose to deny them opportunities for safety, they risk being confronted by the historical memory that in the face of the biggest refugee crisis since WWII, they chose to reinforce group boundaries instead of discovering unity on the basis of our shared humanity.

I suggest that we should challenge the negative assumptions associated with the label ‘refugee’, such as that refugees necessarily burden social systems or threaten the internal security of European countries. We should challenge this homogenisation process, in which the individuality of the displaced individuals is lost in favour of broader cultural assumptions. Most immediately, including refugees in our group boundaries will offer them protection, safety, and opportunities, and in return their integration will lead to social and economic contribution to the host country.

It is therefore crucial that we challenge these discourses and re-establish the dignity and safety of those individuals who forcibly fled their country. It is, I believe, our moral duty to assist those men, women, and children who constantly fight for their survival in a situation that was imposed upon them. We should encourage a movement of solidarity and unity with refugees, and continuously share the human stories of displacement so that displaced individuals can finally be perceived as members of our moral community. 

With the arrival of Syrian refugees in Scotland, there is also the opportunity to provide practical support, such as teaching English, offering accommodation and translation services, but also friendship and companionship. For more information on how you can offer your support, please visit this website:

[1] BBC News. ‘David Cameron: UK to accept ‘thousands’ more Syrian refugees’, 4 September 2015.

[2] Lerner, M.J. (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York: Plenum Press, p. 91.

[3] Tugendhat, E. (1993). ‘The Role of Identity in the Constitution of Morality’, in Noam, G.G. and Wren, T.E. (Eds.). The Moral Self (pp. 3-15). London: The MIT Press.

[4] Opotow, S., Gerson, J. and Woodside, S. (2005). ‘From Moral Exclusion to Moral Inclusion: Theory for Teaching Peace’, Theory Into Practice, 44(4): 305.