Refugees and the ‘Globalization of Indifference’

Pope Francis says people are becoming more apathetic to the suffering of others. Is he right?

A poster depicting Syrian children, including three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned on their way to Europe (Osman Orsal / Reuters)

Cain, where is your brother?

The answer, in the Bible, is that Cain had killed his brother Abel out in the field. God is asking because Abel’s spilled blood has “cried out” to him from the sullied ground. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks, indifferently. The Bible’s first model of brotherhood has been shattered; the first human has died.

Today, the answer might be the Aegean Sea. There, seven months ago, a three-year-old Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. Photos of his lifeless body were shared rapidly around the world, producing a surge in attention to, and concern about, the refugee crisis wrought by the Syrian Civil War.

And there, seven months later, the European Union has launched a controversial program to detain migrants arriving in Greece and deport those who don’t qualify for asylum back to Turkey and their countries of origin. Hundreds of children have drowned in the Aegean since Alan Kurdi’s death, but attention and concern long ago receded. More than a million migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe over the past year, and European leaders and publics—stung by terrorist attacks and incidents of crime involving migrants, along with the broader challenges of integrating newcomers—have recoiled. Stalled efforts to relocate refugees in Europe have left roughly 50,000 asylum-seekers stranded in Greece.

Into that void steps Pope Francis, who this weekend is visiting the Greek island of Lesbos—from which several Turkey-bound ferries full of migrants have departed in recent days—in an effort to rekindle attention and concern. The visit will pose a “moral challenge for Europe,” according to The Washington Post. But what kind of morality does the pope have in mind?

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Francis has made the plight of migrants and refugees a core component of his pastoral work, memorably responding to a question about Donald Trump, who is campaigning in part on a promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, by saying Christians should build bridges, not walls. He’s argued that the wanderings of the dispossessed are intertwined with other major themes of his papacy: economic inequality, climate change, and the fracturing of the family. “Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers,” he wrote in 2013. His advocacy for Muslim migrants indicates that religious frontiers, too, are immaterial in this case.

In 2013, in his first official trip outside Rome, Francis visited the Italian island of Lampedusa to honor migrants from North Africa who had drowned off its shores. In a sermon there, the pope recalled the story of Cain and Abel to illustrate the threat that the situation in Lampedusa posed to the human family. “God asks each one of us: ‘Where is the blood of your brother that cries out to me?’ Today no one in the world feels responsible for this,” he said.

He had a striking name for the phenomenon: “the globalization of indifference.”

And he’s argued that it’s unique to the modern age. “Clearly, indifference is not something new; every period of history has known people who close their hearts to the needs of others, who close their eyes to what is happening around them, who turn aside to avoid encountering other people’s problems,” he wrote earlier this year. “But in our day, indifference has ceased to be a purely personal matter and has taken on broader dimensions.”

There’s no lack of information in today’s world about distant hardships; globalization, after all, contributed to the widespread outcry over Alan Kurdi’s photo. But as the fading of attention to the refugee crisis since then demonstrates, this kind of knowledge doesn’t always translate into compassion; indeed it may compound apathy, calcifying public opinion and paralyzing world leaders. “Sadly,” according to Francis, “today’s information explosion does not of itself lead to an increased concern for other people’s problems. ... Indeed, the information glut can numb people’s sensibilities and to some degree downplay the gravity of the problems.”

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Is the pope right when he contends that this indifference has only recently mutated to acquire “global proportions?” Didn’t indifference have global ramifications during, say, the Holocaust? And is the availability of more information about others’ suffering really counterproductive?

“The pope seems to be suggesting that this is something new, but of course it’s rather the reverse I think,” said Peter Singer, a moral philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton University. “We’ve always basically had less regard for strangers, often zero regard for strangers or outright hostility to strangers. And perhaps there are evolutionary explanations for why that should be.” (Singer pointed out that unlike the pope, he doesn’t approach these issues from a religious perspective.)

Singer argued instead that, since the end of World War II and the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “we have tried to actually globalize concern.” As examples, he cited international campaigns to reduce extreme poverty and new institutions like the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes individuals accused of committing atrocities.

Refugees and Migrants Stranded in Greece, by Location
UNHCR / Reuters

“In the past there weren’t really global issues because there wasn’t very much that you could do about people on the other side of the world,” Singer told me. “If the British had learned, let’s say, in the mid-19th century that there was a famine in India, what were they supposed to do? By the time the grain got there, the famine might well be over or the people might have died. The communications were too slow. And now we have a completely different world in which communication is instant and a shipment of commodities like grain is very fast, even if not instant. So we’re all connected in a way that I think actually promotes greater concern for the rest of the world.”

In his famous 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” written in response to a refugee crisis in present-day Bangladesh, Singer introduced a provocative thought experiment: If you walk by a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, should you save the child? You should try, he argued, even if that means muddying your clothes, and even if other people are callously walking right past the child, and even if that child is actually drowning thousands of miles away but you can place a call to someone who can help him or her.

What matters is whether it’s in your power to prevent something bad from happening without excessive sacrifice on your part, no matter how far away the bad thing is occurring—whether you’re the only one who can stop it or, in his words, “just one among millions” who could assist.

Psychologically, he concedes, you may be more inclined to rescue your neighbor’s flailing child than to send money to a nameless Bengali refugee, but the moral obligations are equivalent. “Morally what is relevant is how certain are you that you will be able to help,” Singer told me.

He noted that over the years, people have questioned his parable: If you saved one drowning child, only to come across another drowning child the next day, shouldn’t you find out why all these children are falling into ponds, and how it can be prevented, rather than rescuing one after another?

Which is where Singer’s thought experiment applies to the refugee crisis: “If you had seen [Alan Kurdi] when he was in the water you would have pulled him out if you were in a boat somewhere or you could have swum after him. … But we do want to think about why are these people making this risky voyage with their children in leaky boats to get away from where they are, and can we do something about that.”

He recommended that people in wealthy countries pressure their governments to jointly address the refugee crisis at a global level, and to find a way—through the UN’s refugee agency, for example—to send more aid to Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan that are hosting the vast majority of Syrian refugees. “We can’t really deal with this when people arrive on the borders of countries. We need to deal with it at an earlier stage,” he said.

“I am not going to ask people to transfer their giving from effective charities that are helping people in extreme poverty in developing countries to helping refugees, because there’s pretty good evidence that it’s actually more cost-effective to help people in their own countries,” Singer added. “If someone comes to Germany, things are expensive in Germany, and to provide them with housing and food and all of that is going to cost quite a lot of money.” Giving $1,000 in aid to a poor family in Kenya might have a far greater impact on that family than giving that same $1,000 to a family of displaced Syrians in Germany. That’s why Singer is troubled by the fact that several European governments are dipping into their foreign-aid budgets to cover the costs of settling refugees in Europe.

If European countries simply accept more refugees, he said, it could “mean that more people will then try and make this perilous journey, and there will be more people drowning in the seas trying to get there. … I think it’s really important that you know that your help will be effective.”

That Alan Kurdi’s death raised awareness of these issues is, in Singer’s view, a demonstration of how concern has been globalized. “That would never have happened before” the era of social and transnational media, he said.

In September 2015, the image of the boy on the beach spread to the screens of almost 20 million people in just 12 hours, according to a study by the University of Sheffield. It resonated around the world for a disturbing but human reason: The boy looked like any boy, the beach like any beach. And then, nearly as quickly, the picture of Alan, and the discussion of what he represented, disappeared from those screens.

Pope Francis might look at the relative silence in the seven months since and lament the globalization of indifference. But Peter Singer might look at those initial 12 hours and marvel at the globalization of concern. Both phenomena are at play in Europe’s response to the refugee crisis. The resolution of the crisis will depend, in part, on which force proves stronger.

Where is your brother?

We’re better equipped to answer that question today than we’ve ever been before. What do we do with that knowledge?