Would we care more about refugees if they were white?

This week, Save The Children published a video of a young red-haired girl staring down the camera as her family fled a war zone.

The video follows a similar video made previously in which the same little girl wakes up in her comfortable English home and the world around her begins to deteriorate. The scenes, which change every few seconds filmed by a hand-held camera, offer glimpses into the horror, destruction, confusion and denigration which refugees are forced to escape. Families are torn apart, people are held at gun point and explosions rock the buses which drive them from the occupied camps. The video ends with the words: ‘It’s happening now. It’s happening here.’

But, of course, it’s not happening now and it’s not happening here. Not for white, freckled British girls with English accents. This is obviously the point of Save The Children’s campaign: take a child middle class Brits can identify with and put her in the position of a non-white Syrian refugee and hope that the shock factor will capture the hearts of the otherwise disengaged. A little scroll through the usually aggressive space of the YouTube comments section proves this tactic can work: ‘this makes me so sad, I never cry and I almost cried when I watched this’ said one user, ‘I feel so sad for all of them, this should not be happening’ wrote another.

This campaign is similar to an experiment conducted in 2014 by 500 young Americans who took part in a Global Refugee Stimulation and Conference in which the participants were put into the position of refugees and forced to react to fake replays of war-zone terror. Organised by The American Red Cross the event attempted to address the lack of empathy towards those seeking asylum following a visit from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The event served to enforce the notion that ‘empathy offers an understanding that we are connected and that connection is followed by a commitment to make things better for one another.’

Yet, why does our empathy rely upon the employment and involvement of white people?

Of course there is the obvious answer that people feel more affected by events which look likely to happen to them. This is the same reason why, like it or not, there was far greater outcry in the Western world for terrorism in Paris and Brussels than in, say, Iraq or Nigeria. But efforts to alter attitudes towards refugees will not be solved by white washing their struggles.

Humanity towards refugees will not be achieved until these people are regarded as individuals with lives and rights equal to our own. The acceptance of racial stereotyping within our political debate is an insidious and terrifying reality, fostered by expanding far-right parties across the EU  and internalised within the minds of ordinary citizens. We are taught to be fearful of refugees. Cartoons echoing Nazi propaganda in the Daily Mail and fear-mongering tales of the terrorist threats play into the consciousness of voters and serves to justify what life-long Conservative Peter Oborne recently described as ‘a soft apartheid towards Muslims’  – the effects of which were evident in the divisive campaign by Zac Goldsmith for the London Mayor elections. It is the fear which Donald Trump is capitalising upon. It’s the fear which groups such as Daesh want to spread. The efforts of Save The Children may culminate in a more empathetic understanding but it does little to counter the deeper problem for racial hierarchy.

To fear all refugees as a result of the actions of violent minorities is to brandish an entire race with the behaviours of a few. Let’s be clear that such generalised phobia does not exist towards white men despite, statistically, that being the group most likely to carry out mass shootings in the US. It’s almost comical in its absurdity to imagine politicians standing up to warn of the danger posed by white male migrants- ‘we just don’t know which ones want to shoot us!’

Emma Thomson said in 2015 that the lack of coherent help given by the British Government towards the crisis was ‘racist’. In an interview for Newsnight the actress declared that ‘if these people were white, Europeans… I think we would feel quite differently about it.’ And that is where the crux of the matter lies. There would never be a generalised fear of white men with guns, because racial hierarchies dictate that we view white men as individuals. But a terrorists attack committed, in part, by someone claiming refugee status from Syria could and can do enough damage to render the entire population susceptible to scrutiny. Empathy can only stretch so far when national understanding is so reliant upon stereotypes. Perhaps until we reach a place where race is a less contested, divisive issue, efforts such as Save The Children’s will feel less necessary.

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