As people open their homes to Ukrainian refugees, some in Germany and elsewhere in Europe are criticizing the lack of a similar welcome for Syrians in 2015. Do we have a responsibility to offer the same level of help to all those in need — and are we even capable of that? The answer might just be found in philosophy.
BERLIN — The war in Ukraine has moved many to open their homes to refugees, but this warm welcome has also sparked criticism, with some asking why so many Germans are now happy to have a Ukrainian under their roof when they wouldn’t have done the same for a Syrian in 2015.
There are many reasons for this. Nigerian author Ayo Sogunro tweeted, “Can't get it out of my head that Europe cried about a 'migrant crisis' in 2015 against 1.4 million refugees fleeing war in Syria and yet quickly absorbed some 2 million Ukrainians within days, complete with flags and piano music. Europe never had a migrant crisis. It has a racism crisis."
Of course there were those who welcomed Syrian refugees in 2015, but no one can deny that the current situation has moved more people to action. On Twitter, Sogunro wrote, “Europeans have to learn how to extend a humane response to everyone and not just people who look like them.” In a BBC interview, a Ukrainian lawyer spoke of his dismay at seeing “European people with blue eyes and blonde hair” being forced to flee their country.
Who deserves to be saved?
Der Spiegel columnist Margarete Stokowski, however, argued that the main prejudice preventing Europeans from welcoming all refugees equally is sexism rather than racism, pointing out that most of those arriving from Ukraine are women and children.
Stokowski was not arguing that men were disadvantaged, as you might expect from the observation that people are less prepared to welcome them into their homes. She wrote that Ukrainian women are being fetishized and sexualized by German men. The headline of her article was “Hands off the women”.
Talk shows are abuzz with claims that in 2015 “strong men who were fit for military service” were leaving their wives and country behind, while Ukrainian men are standing firm and protecting their homeland. The implication is that some people deserve to be saved and others have brought their suffering on themselves. (It is seldom acknowledged that women and children often stay behind because the journey across the Mediterranean is fraught with danger.)
Sympathy requires identification
TV presenter Frank Plasberg pointed to the cultural similarities between Ukrainians and other Europeans, while others commented on the education levels. They repeat “It’s Europe” like a mantra. The distance from Berlin to Kyiv is no further than from Berlin to Rome.
Many say Ukrainians are receiving a warmer welcome because of existing friendships between individuals – and because of the fear that war may soon wash up on our own doorsteps. We have long known that sympathy requires a certain degree of identification with the object. As 18th century German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote, “From this similarity arises the fear that our fate may as easily become like his as we feel ourselves to be like him, and it is this fear that brings sympathy to fruition.”
But explanation is not justification. It is natural to feel more deeply moved by suffering that is close to us and affects people who are similar to us or who we know personally. However, the decisive question is whether we can draw a moral imperative from this natural reaction.
In other words, how impartial should we be in offering help? We are naturally more inclined to help a friend than an enemy, but is that a moral approach? Or should we follow Kant’s example and allow ourselves to be led by pure reason, free of all subjective preferences?
Syrian refugees behind barbed wire
In Sep. 2015, Syrian refugees stopped at the Serbian-Hungarian border
Gregor Fischer/DPA via ZUMA
Proximity and the moral duty to help
In his 1972 essay Famine, Affluence and Morality, Australian philosopher Peter Singer proposed a provocative thought experiment: Imagine you are walking in a park and see a child drowning in a lake. You are likely to jump into the water without hesitation to try and save them. Saving a human life is far more important than the inconvenience of getting wet and dirty and arriving late to work.
Saving a human life is far more important than the inconvenience of arriving late to work.
But, Singer continues, should this duty to save human lives not extend to starving children in Bangladesh? Do we not have just as much of a responsibility to donate money to children living in poverty as we do to jump into a lake and save a drowning child? According to Singer, it is “morally irrelevant whether the person I can help is a child standing 10m away or a Bengali whose name I will never know, living 15,000km away.”
The two waves of refugees entering Germany in 2015 and 2022 have created a real-world example of this scenario, raising the question of whether proximity should be a decisive factor in our moral behaviour. In her 2010 book Duties at a Distance: World Poverty and Individual Responsibility, Swiss philosopher Barbara Bleisch examines three possible objections to extending our moral obligations across the globe: the moral objection (we would create an unsustainable situation of indefinite dependence), the communitarian objection (full impartiality endangers community) and the libertarian objection (it would restrict individual freedom).
The communitarian objection is the one we are currently hearing most often. Communitarians assume that responsibilities should be limited to specific social contexts, as they see the principle of partiality as vital to the functioning of communities. In other words: it is not only natural, but also justified, that we care more for people close to us than for strangers. The communitarian view holds that we have a particular duty of care to refugees from neighbouring countries, whose societies are similar to ours and who will therefore find it easier to integrate into our culture.
The scope of our sympathy
Applying these criteria for helping others could maximize the benefits for all people – for example, when accepting all refugees might threaten the stability of a society. A dysfunctional society can offer less help. When combined with the argument about being overwhelmed – helping others only out of a sense of duty in the abstract is too burdensome for individuals and leads to unhappiness – this view seems to justify the difference in reaction in 2015 and 2022. All that remains is to offer a convincing reason why Ukrainian refugees would have a less destabilizing effect on German society than Syrians.
Refugees are not necessarily The Other, they are not uncivilized foreigners.
CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata caused outrage by saying that Ukraine “isn’t a place like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European […] city, where you don’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” His comments do however offer a glimmer of hope, in that they imply refugees are not necessarily The Other, they are not uncivilized foreigners – that any one of us could find ourselves in this situation.
Sogunro’s call for Europeans to extend their support to “everyone” in the future – drawing on Singer’s concept of universal responsibility – seems unrealistic. But the warm reception for refugees from Ukraine — a country on the edge of Europe, with which Germans have had little contact – has shown that our sympathy is not limited to those who fall within the same narrow cultural space that we occupy. How we define proximity and distance is not static; it changes every day. Our best hope is that we do not reduce the scope of our sympathy, but widen it.
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