Europeans dehumanize refugees

What happens when empathy runs out for those who need it most? Psychologist Claus Lamm argues there is a blatant lack of compassion in the European debate around refugees.

Christine Tragler
Christine Tragler Der Standard, Austria
Source: Der Standard
Europeans dehumanize refugees - NewsMavens
Refugee. Pixabay

Why this story matters:

In 2017, Sebastian Kurz caused outrage by saying that "this NGO madness must end." He was referring to NGO boats rescuing stranded migrants in the Mediterranean.

In Kurz's eyes, rescuing these people meant bringing yet another cohort of refugees onto European soil. But by saying they should not be rescued, he implied they should be left to starve and drown. By championing stricter refugee policies, many politicians treat refugees as objects, argues psychologist Claus Lamm.

In an interview with Der Standard editor Peter Mayr, Lamm analyzes public debates on the refugee issue. His conclusion:

"When empathy is not considered desirable, or is only extended to our own people, broader compassion for other cultures and other individuals will be limited."

"Ultimately, regulations such as the Geneva Refugee Convention have been set up so that the burden of empathy is not on individuals, but rather embedded in the legal system. It is one of humanity's cultural achievements, making it all the more regrettable that some countries, like the US and Hungary, but also Austria, are weakening these standards."

Overall, Lamm sees "very strong dehumanizing tendencies" in the way the refugee debate is currently being conducted. Politicians avoid discussing the details of individuals' lives. But this is precisely the type of information that creates empathy, he says.

Details from the story:

  • Claus Lamm was born in 1973 in Lustenau. He is teaches biological psychology at the University of Vienna. His research focuses on social behavior, empathy and compassion in humans.
  • Empathy is not born in a vacuum, but stems from the social environment, says Lamm. Everyone has the ability to feel empathy for others in principle. However, this ability must be trained, for example by parents or the social environment.
  • Empathy, in his opinion, is not the only element at stake in the issue. There is a set of moral and ethical values that leads people to believe that those in need ought to be helped. 
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