By Dr David Bates

To avoid any ambiguity in what I am about to say, I want simply to insist that ‘yes we have a duty to help refugees’. Of course few – at least expressly – would disagree with this.

I also want to insist that our duty of aid goes well beyond refugees. Western liberal democratic states have a duty to help asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants.

According to international law, we are bound by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention which defines a refugee as someone who:

‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable, or owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’

(See: )

Clearly many current Syrian individuals and families can be considered within this definition. We have a moral and legal duty to help.

Now, according to the Daily Mail, only one in every five migrants claiming asylum in Europe is from Syria.

And they insist that lots of economic migrants have taken advantage of the Syrian crisis to further their own interests.

The ‘evidence’ presented by the Daily Mail has been contested, and I don’t really want to debate the ‘facts’ of the case here.  (See: )

Rather, I want to say that we also have a substantive duty to help ‘economic migrants’ which is not being met. Clearly there are people who have suffered serious economic hardship who are worthy of our aid; people whose families are living in extreme poverty; people whose conception of ‘a better life’ is a life better than starvation, a life with hope.

According to United Nations data, in 2015, 14 per cent of the population in developing nations living on less than 1.25 Dollars per day.  At the global level more than 800 million people are still living in extreme poverty. (See: )

To this extent, I agree with the philosopher Michael Dummett who argues:

‘It needs only a moment’s thought to realise that flight for economic reasons may be as justified and as worthy of sympathy and help as flight from political persecution.’ (Dummett, 2001: p. 45)

But the claim I wish to make extends beyond this. Not only are Western states duty bound to help a far wider range of people than they currently do; their omissions – that is their failure to act – contaminates them with moral guilt.

Rather than taking on a rescuer role, some European states resemble bystanders in the face of immense suffering.  As bystanders, these states betray the memories of so many past generations of European citizens.

And so my point is clear – Britain is a bystander state; its government is a bystander government.

It is worth recalling the words of Primo Levi. For Levi, bystanders were those who:

‘delud[ed] themselves that not seeing was a way of not knowing, and that not knowing relieved them of their shame of complicity.’ (Geras, 1998: p. 51)

Norman Geras has characterised the moral significance of this bystander situation as follows:

‘If you do not come to the aid of others who are under grave assault, in acute danger or crying need, you cannot reasonably expect others to come to your aid in a similar emergency; you cannot consider them so obligated to you… I call this the contract of mutual indifference…’ (Geras, 1998: p. 28)

According to Geras therefore, our moral guilt – our indifference – places us outside of any idea of a morally valuable community. For Geras, such moral indifference typifies the state of play in many liberal democracies.

Whilst I think Geras’s argument to be a morally serious one, there are a few qualifying points I wish to make.

First, though it may be the case that as individuals we could do much more to help all the groups I have just mentioned, we ought not to go too far in our individualisation of public guilt.

Rather we ought first to focus our critical energies on government inaction; on the way that the news media not only perpetuates a bystander culture, but demonises the needy, and the vulnerable. Given the barrage of media bile against ‘bogus asylum seekers’ (a catch all phrase used by newspapers such as the Daily Mail), and widespread government cowardice and inactivity, is it really surprising that the public are confused. Is it surprising that they don’t (at best) know how to act?

The horror of the image of the three year old boy Aylan  – who drowned along with his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother, Rihan off the cost of Turkey – was what it took to start to readjust public perception. (Why did it seem that the morality of our government was dragging so far behind that of the public?)

Second – following this point – we (citizens, members of civil society, trade unions, religious groups) need to do much more than pronounce our moral judgement. We need to move from ethics to active public politics. We need to tackle the problem of government inaction head on. We need to criticise the racism and anti-refugee rhetoric of political parties such as UKIP.

We need to organise against the pernicious power of the hard right wing press. It is only via politics that we can start to readjust the terrain in which the current ‘migration’ debate is located.

Third and finally, I invoke the feminist argument that ‘the personal is political’. Let’s make a firm commitment to the humanisation of public discourse. Let’s not refer to ‘migrants’. Let’s not refer to ‘bogus asylum seekers’. Let’s not even refer to ‘the numbers’. Let’s start by referring to people; people with families, hopes and (quashed) aspirations.

An indifferent culture, an indifferent social and political system, can only function by demonising and alienating forms of language. Let’s resist this language and those who speak it!


Michael Dummett (2001) On Immigration and Refugees, London, Routledge.

Norman Geras (1998) The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust, London, Verso.

Talk delivered to ‘A Tragedy on Europe’s Shores: A Debate on the Current Migration Crisis’, Canterbury Christ Church University, 30 September 2015