TEDx told without policies anti-refugee feelings grow

16 October 2017

  • Governments needs to promote compassion to solve migrant crisis
  • Natural fear of the stranger driving hostility towards refugees in Europe
  • Professor Fotaki tells TEDx EU deal with Turkey is "an act of cruelty"
  • Locals' initial compassion can only be sustained with Government help

Marianna Fotaki revealed to a TEDx audience how government policies are needed for people to overcome their fear of immigrants.

The Professor of Business Ethics travelled to the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios to study how the locals reacted to the flood of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2016 and 2017.

She found villagers overcame their natural fear of the ‘other’ with many volunteer groups springing up to help. But without government support resentment among locals grew, which was exacerbated when European countries left the 10s of thousands of refugees in limbo by stopping them crossing borders in the EU.

Professor Fotaki told the TEDx at Vlerick Business School in Belgium: “We are hardwired for survival. Fear is part of who we are and I realised when I visited the Greek islands that genuine compassion co-existed with fear in most cases.

“What made the difference was whether individuals allowed themselves to respond to their natural fear, and how communities collectively responded to the refugee arrivals.

“Overcoming the fear of the stranger is key, but having policies that promote our inclination for compassion for the helpless ‘other’ is much more important.”

The European migrant crisis began in 2015 when more than one million people arrived on the shores of Europe, most fleeing war in Afghanistan and Syria.

Those numbers have dropped in the main due to governments in Europe fortifying their borders with walls, fences and guards and a deal which saw the EU send refugees back to Turkey.

After speaking to villagers, charities and makeshift organisations involved in rescuing migrants from the sea Professor Fotaki believes when fears over the influx of people are expressed out loud they can be overcome by social shaming.

What can be done about the migrant crisis?

“It is possible to have an emotional freezing, when people are all too aware of their own vulnerability and are horrified at sharing the predicament, they realise it could be themselves in their place,” said Professor Fotaki. “In those instances it is very important how the local communities turn those initial reactions into solidarity towards refugees.

“As was the case of a shopkeeper who refused to sell a bottle of water to a man coming off a lifeboat in scorching heat. Many can be frightened by the sheer human despair and neediness that such situations evoke.

“The hostile shopkeeper had to change his ways because his neighbours shamed him.”

refugee babies
Nap time: Two toddlers in a refugee camp in Chios

Professor Fotaki also interviewed a fisherman who came across hundreds of migrants in dinghies floating helplessly in the ocean.

“They could not operate the engine and had never seen the sea before,” said Professor Fotaki. “His decision to help was not a result of conscious deliberation, it came from his urge to protect them from harm.

“Science explains this by our preprogramed ability to participate in other peoples’ emotions. Seeing the other suffering activates regions in the brain which are involved in processing pain-related emotions.

Related course: MSc Management

“It happens through feeling rather than thinking, we experience other people’s harm as our own, we mirror other people’s feelings when they are in danger to save ourselves, so to speak.

“But the initial reaction of people cannot be sustained without adequate policies and support from the Government, even in Lesbos fear and resentment replaced the initial welcome.

“We need sustainable policies, it is not the responsibility of individuals to take on the role of governments who fail to take on the needs of the most vulnerable.

"Otherwise xenophobia rises, then people scapegoat migrants for unemployment, failing public services, and low wages. While untrue, such accusations find a fertile ground because they speak to our primary fear of survival.

“When governments propagate this fear it gives us permission to neglect the most vulnerable and see their needs as less worthy than our own.

“Sending them to Turkey is only possible because we dis-identify with them - otherwise it would be considered an act of utter cruelty.”

Marianna Fotaki teaches Ethical Leadership on the suite of MSc Business courses, Governance and Corporate Responsibility on the MSc Management and Ethical Issues & Social Responsibility in Contemporary Business on the Undergraduate programme.

Join the conversation

WBS on social media