The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Salience of International Issues

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Political News Friday, December 18, 2015 View Count = 3295

The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Salience of International Issues


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The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Salience of International Issues” is written by Sean Fleming from the University of Cambridge. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Sean Fleming and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

The stirring photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi face-down on a beach made the Syrian refugee crisis an election issue almost as soon as it emerged on September 2. Why did a single image from halfway across the world have such a profound effect on an election campaign? The fallout from this unsettling visual provides insights about why certain images inspire political action and when international issues are likely to become salient.

The Kurdi photo made the refugee crisis salient primarily because it individualized or humanized the crisis. International issues are usually framed in terms of groups—states, organizations, alliances, rebels, terrorists, migrants, and refugees. Collective language and collective images obscure human stories and dull our empathy. News stories about the 71 refugees who suffocated in a truck in Austria, the 200 who drowned off the coast of Libya, and the 2,636 or more who died from January to August failed to make the crisis salient because the victims got lost in the crowd. Particular people, not groups or numbers, trigger empathy.

By focusing on a single victim, the photo of a dead, innocent toddler highlighted the vulnerability of the refugees and downplayed the threat that they pose. Crowds of nameless, faceless migrants may provoke suspicions of terrorism and opportunism, but it is unthinkable not to grieve for a three-year-old boy. Three-year-olds cannot be dismissed as jihadists or economic migrants. Suspicion and indifference about the refugees gave way to the thought that Alan Kurdi could have been anyone’s child, which was quickly followed by the thought that Canada ought to have helped somehow. We cannot be suspicious or indifferent about a child who washed up dead on a beach.

Although the intrinsic features of the Kurdi photo explain why it changed perceptions of the refugees worldwide, they only partly explain why the crisis became an election issue in Canada. Research from other countries indicates that international issues are most likely to become salient when they have domestic connections and when they divide political elites. The Syrian refugee crisis probably would not have become an election issue in Canada if not for the Kurdi family’s Canadian connection and the disagreement among the three major parties about Canada’s policies toward Syria.

The Kurdi family’s Canadian connection increased initial media coverage of the photo and reinforced the view that Canada could have done something to help. Alan Kurdi’s aunt, Tima Kurdi, lives in British Columbia, and early statements from NDP candidate Fin Donnelly indicated that Citizenship and Immigration Canada had rejected her application to sponsor her nephew’s family into Canada. Although it was later revealed that she had instead submitted an application for the family of Alan’s uncle, the misinformation had already spread, and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander had already been drawn away from his campaign and into a media frenzy. To add to the confusion, Kurdi’s father later blamed Canadian authorities for the deaths of his wife and two sons. The Canadian backstory of the photo, though very muddled, created a campaign issue out of what otherwise would have been a tragedy in a faraway land.

The refugee crisis kept the attention of the media because it provoked a seemingly endless series of disagreements among Canada’s three major parties. The Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP sparred about how many refugees to resettle, how quickly to resettle them, how to fund the resettlement, how to screen refugees, and whether the military campaign against ISIS is a necessary part of the humanitarian effort. In early October, just when the salience of the refugee crisis started to dwindle, The Globe and Mail reported that the Prime Minister’s Office interfered with the processing of UN-referred Syrian refugee claims in the months before the photo of Alan Kurdi surfaced. The refugee crisis would not have become a prominent election issue had the three parties agreed about how Canada should respond, and it would not have remained salient for the remainder of the campaign if it had not led to many smaller debates and controversies. A tragedy without controversy cannot remain a leading news story and become an election issue.

International issues seldom become election issues in Canada because they are, by definition, collective and distant: they are about groups beyond our borders. The images of the lifeless body of a Syrian boy made the refugee crisis an election issue because it humanized the crisis, had a Canadian connection, and divided Canada’s political elites. The fallout suggests that international issues are most likely to become salient when their international characteristics are stripped away—when they are framed in terms of innocent individuals and are brought close to home.

Fleming photoSean Fleming is a PhD candidate researching Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Fleming researches the role of collective and state responsibility in international relations. His other research interests include political analogies, political representation, and Thomas Hobbes’ political thought.

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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