You must understand more than just danger 

By Jacklin Kwan. Jacklin is 20 and studies at the University of Manchester. Please read her article and leave your thoughts below. (*Shortlisted for the 2018 prize!)

It is, and probably always has been, difficult to be an outsider. The difference that separates people is already made profound by differences in our experiences and the worldviews which have culminated from them. However, these differences have only become more salient with time. In the current socio-political climate, important discussions around group identity, national interest, and moral obligation are continuously impeded with appeals to prejudice and fear. A perhaps natural caution towards an unfamiliar ‘other’ is weaponised so as to override the most basic humanist compassion. Our desire to understand another’s situation is suppressed under dangerous myths that degrade the inherent value of other human beings.

Sadly, there is no shortage of examples from history. Warsan Shire draws from close experiences as a British poet born in Kenya to Somali parents. After speaking to migrants who had fled war-torn states, Shire composed ‘Home’ to represent the trauma and grief that many refugees experienced after being displaced by conflict. [1] The poem is also largely reactionary. ‘Home’ was a response to the growing xenophobia in the West, and has since become a rallying cry for refugees during the current European migrant crisis. The poem represents the sad truth for many– a desperation for stability and safety so visceral that it has compelled thousands to risk crossing the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies, and subsequently die in the process. [2] It is a vulnerability that is so severe that it escapes most of our imaginations.

In that empathy gap, influential figures and platforms spread mistruths that have aimed to downplay the tragedy of the situation and our obligations to look beyond our selfish interests. Racist prejudices are used to further alienate the privileged Western world from the suffering outside their borders; a pretence for ignoring a discomforting reality. In a recent poll by The Independent, over half of British citizens were unaware of the Yemeni Civil War, a conflict that has taken the lives of 60,000 people in combat, civilian casualty, and famine. [3] This takes place in a United Kingdom where 69% of voters also believed that the UK had taken too many refugees from Arab states. [4]

While Shire’s poem is an admirable call to compassion in a world that is increasingly polarised across racial, religious, and economic-political lines, it cannot be the singular narrative of migrants. Migrants are not simply passive in their pursuit of a better life. They are not compelled merely by circumstances external to their individual free will. Many migrants expose themselves to vulnerability not merely due to fear, but also due to hope, love, and a hunger for opportunity. Ignoring this complexity can be just as detrimental as the hateful rhetoric that fills tabloid headlines.

It is time we apply a more complete picture of who migrants are, and what they are capable of when we come to discuss issues such as immigration and humanitarian aid. Looking to the 18th and 19th century, waves of Asian immigrants who left their countries on junks in search of a new life. [5] It is a discredit to say they were forced to leave their homelands solely due to economic impoverishment. Though those factors were (of course) significant, many Asian immigrants had a spirit of enterprise, setting up businesses and living vibrant new lives. In a number of ways, their romanticism parallels the nationalistic pride of many Western democracies. For example, the American Dream is stereotypically seen as the freedom to access opportunity and upward mobility with effort and talent. This ethos is often a subject of great national pride. So, it is strange that so much of this fervour only enters mainstream discourse about a very select group of migrants when resilience, opportunism, and meritocracy are not values that exclude refugees.

Even refugees that have their lives devastated by war are not passive objects in their fate. Shire’s poem paints them in a sympathetic light, but purely as victims of forces much greater than themselves. However, a much deeper humanisation could be created when acknowledging the duplicity of human beings. Migrants and refugees should not just be seen in their moments of weakness and need, but also in their moments of bravery and optimism when they pursue happiness (not just survival).

The homelands of migrants are also not always broken states, or as Shire describes in the opening stanza of ‘Home’, they are not always “the mouth of a shark”. In many ways, Shire plays into mainstream paradigms that see the developing world as a cesspool of war and poverty. Yes, the atrocities that happen due to violence and impoverishment are catastrophic, but the suffering becomes even more salient when people understand what was lost. These homelands were not just dear because they were familiar to refugees. They were, and still are, countries with unfathomably deep histories, rich cultures, and meaningful contributions to art, literature, and science. In this framing, refugees are not products of endless state dysfunction. Their backgrounds were capable of imprinting valuable experiences, and the loss of their homes is impactful to all of humankind.

I do not believe Shire’s poem exists in a vacuum, so her poem is far from the singular narrative that defines refugees. In its beauty and emotiveness, it combats the cold calculation behind xenophobia. However, the point of this essay is to point out the flaws of many calls to humanitarianism. Though they aim to raise empathy, they too often resort to the degradation of their subject. This degradation is different to the racist slurs or offensive generalisations about migrants that many of us conscientiously object to. Though it lacks the same biting vitriol, rhetoric that frames migrants as only victims undermines their fundamental free will, which inheres in their human condition. It downplays the contributions they are capable of making to their new homes as agents. It erodes the dignity of the backgrounds they come from.

A more pluralistic view could perhaps better combat anti-refugee sentiments. Uplifting stories of Syrians starting bakeries in Berlin [6] lend themselves organically to narratives of successful assimilation. By highlighting the positive contributions the majority of migrants make, you effectively combat the stigma that they are “leeches”. Beyond the toxicity of debate around terrorism and foreign intervention, there needs to be an acknowledgement that these are people who can write their own stories. The context of a war that has been spanning for more than seven years is deeply traumatic, but people should be willing to see refugees as part of the solution to the crisis, not just symptoms of it.

Their opinions and experiences are unique assets when attempting to solve problems of radicalisation both domestic and abroad. Like Shire herself, they can be artists who advocate for racial and religious conciliation. Believing that aid should come in only one direction stems from the same arrogance that underpins racism. In the past, such simplistic worldviews have led to genuinely bad policy decisions which are driven by the best intentions. The donation of second-hand clothes to many African states have led to a collapse of local textile industries, because local governments were not consulted by international aid organisations. [7]

We should extend kindness out of empathetic distress. We should also extend it because, like the most privileged of us, refugees want to build a life for themselves.




[1] Bausells, M. and Shearlaw, M. (2015). Poets speak out for refugees: ‘No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark’. The Guardian. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Oct. 2018].


[2] Squires, N. (2016). More than 2,500 refugees and migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, UN reveals. The Telegraph. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Oct. 2018].


[3] Dearden, L. (2017). Yemen war: More than half of British people unaware of ongoing conflict seeing UK weapons deployed by Saudis. The Independent. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Oct. 2018].


[4] Wintour, P. (2017). Survey reveals scale of hostility towards Arabs in Britain. The Guardian. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Oct. 2018].


[5] Takaki, R. (1998). Strangers from a Different Shore: History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown.


[6] Bolongaro, K. (2016). Welcome to Syrian Berlin: A refugee tour of the city. Al Jazeera. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Oct. 2018].


[7] Wadhams, N. (2010). Bad Charity? (All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!). The Times. [online] Available at:,8599,1987628,00.html [Accessed 7 Oct. 2018].


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