The individual stories of migrants touch our hearts

How migration can be made more acceptable

2 minutes to read
Irene de Groot


Migration is a tricky subject that has caused a lot of debate in recent years. However, it could be possible to ease the discussion on migration by making the person behind the migrant visible.

Migration is a topic that has been all over the news for the past few years. Europeans become more and more protective of their nations now that these “outsiders” are moving into their continent. There is an increase of “Euro-racism” linked to the inflow of refugees and migrants (Delanty, Jones, & Wodak, 2008, p. 1), which means that racism is a phenomenon that has started to occur more often in European society. The question that can be asked is whether migration would be more defendable if the stories of individuals were made public.

Malick Touray, thirty years old, is a refugee who made it all the way to Italy from his native country Gambia. His journey has not been easy. He had to leave his family behind in order to pursue a better life. At one point he fell in love with Aibas, whom he is now married to. Eventually they both arrived in Italy, but Malick was arrested for being an illegal immigrant. This happened while his wife was pregnant. In fear of being arrested as well, she did not go to a hospital to deliver her child. The baby died at childbirth and Aibas had to bury the child without Malick being there. He never saw his baby (Gebreab, 2015).

This is an example of an individual story from one of the refugees. A story like this triggers compassion, which Berlant (2004) explains as something that ‘implies a relationship between spectators and sufferers, with the emphasis on the spectator’s experience of feeling compassion and its subsequent relation to material practice’. When we see ‘Malick Touray’, instead of ‘just a refugee’ we feel closer to the person. A moment such as the loss of his child makes us feel compassion for him.

A poor little boy, who was just trying to get a better life.

The phenomenon of compassion is not unknown; we have witnessed this before in the refugee crisis. The moment when the by now famous photograph of Aylan Kurdi hit the world, it sparked a lot of discussion. Aylan was a boy from Syria who tried to cross the ocean in order to find asylum in Europe. He drowned while he was on his way. The picture of his remains, washed up on European shores, has become famous because of its sentimental value. A poor little boy, who was just trying to get a better life. This image has touched the hearts of many and has thus created compassion. The refugees who died at sea now had a name: Aylan Kurdi.

Compassion creates a social relationship between spectator and sufferer (Berlant & Gilbert, 2004). This implies that when a spectator feels compassionate, they will want to help the sufferer. The stories of individuals, as we have seen with Aylan and Malick, gain this compassion. Therefore, the conclusion can be reached that making personal stories public would benefit migration. Migration would be more defendable if Europeans knew who the person behind the refugee is.



Berlant, L., & Gilbert, P. (2004). Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion. New York: Routledge.

Delanty, G., Jones, P., & Wodak, R. (2008). Identity, Belonging and Migration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gebreab, E. (2015). The Mediterranean's migrant survivors. BBC News. 

Smith, H. (2015). Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees. The Guardian.