The Power and Complexity of Empathy in a Refugee Crisis

By Dr. Peter Sear

A look at the role of empathy during a refugee crisis. Have Ukrainian refuges been treated unlike other refugees? Can human traffickers and dictators be empathic? Can empathy keep you safe? How do narratives influence empathy? And how much power does empathy yield?

Russia’s attack on Ukraine fuelled yet another refugee crisis. From both political leaders and their people, the response across the continent has been predominantly empathic and compassionate. European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, declared, “We welcome with open arms those Ukrainians who have to flee from Putin’s bombs, and I am proud of the warm welcome that Europeans have given them.”1 This may feel different from the welcome formerly received by refugees from Africa and the Middle East.2 Perhaps this is due to 90 per cent of Ukrainian refugees being women and children3 or that Russia is widely perceived to be the bully and aggressor and the Ukrainians the innocent victims, but is it also because these refugees are European?

Europeans certainly appear to have felt the pain of their fellow Europeans more deeply. Research offers an explanation for this in that we have in-group bias when it comes to empathy.4,5 This is one of many complexities of human empathy that have played a role in the crisis and may hold the key to its outcome.

Ukranian Refugee
Photo: Ukrainian refugees on Lviv railway station waiting for train to escape to Europe

Empathy focuses on either a vicarious affective experience6 or a cognitive effort to imagine the feelings and perspective of another.7 In either case, empathy offers understanding of the other’s situation. We then stand on the precipice of action. When we sense the suffering of others in our own group, we are more likely to react with compassion.8 But we need to be rational with our empathic understanding and react intelligently, rather than hastily. There is a close link between emotion and reason, the application of logic. Without reason, we may express bias, and treat one group of people in need of our help differently from another. Without reason, empathy has the power to do more harm than good.

Empathy and Reason

Paul Broom, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, warns of the dangers of empathic reactions.9 In his book Against Empathy, Bloom describes empathy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and insists that many mistakes are made because of it. If a child falls from a refugee boat crossing an ocean, empathy might inspire an adult to jump in after them, but what if the adult cannot swim? The response lacks reason and, therefore, wisdom.

It is not only through a lack of proper reasoning that empathy can cause problems. Accurately reading the needs and motivations of others can be used for cruelty and exploitation.

Over 3,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants died or went missing in 2021 while trying to reach European countries through the Mediterranean and Atlantic sea routes.10 A debate raged as to whether deploying more rescue boats would encourage far more migrants to risk the journey? The question asked was: “Is what seems at first to be an empathic and compassionate response causing even more deaths?” The EU reasoned that this was the bigger picture, and actively worked to stop attempts by refugees to arrive by sea, in order to save more lives.11 Search and rescue actions were reduced in favour of enforcement. Even NGO craft were restricted from operating search and rescue in the Mediterranean. There have been many critics of this approach. Sociologist Dr Ala Sirriyeh calls it “a policy of saving by drowning”12 and NGOs have openly blamed the European Union and Member States for a subsequent increased rate of migrant deaths. Médecins Sans Frontières stated: “Not only has Europe failed to provide search-and-rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives.”13

Empathic Traffickers

It is not only through a lack of proper reasoning that empathy can cause problems. Accurately reading the needs and motivations of others can be used for cruelty and exploitation. Amongst the compassionate Europeans greeting Ukrainians at the border and across the continent, human traffickers lay in wait. These traffickers can employ cognitive empathy to understand refugees’ situations and desperate needs and use this understanding to satisfy their real motives.

The United Nations Office on Drugs on Crime (UNODC), tasked with tackling human trafficking, is supporting countries that are affected by the refugee crisis in identifying the vulnerable. UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly says that, “Crisis increases vulnerabilities as well as opportunities to exploit people in need, especially internally displaced people and refugees…People who have fled conflict, especially women and children, are particularly at risk of human trafficking and exploitation.”14

Global data on human trafficking, collected by UNODC since 2006, reveals that women are the primary target of traffickers and are exposed to sexual exploitation. 14 Figures consistently show an increase in the number of children identified as trafficked, too, which is of particular concern in the current crisis that has seen many Ukrainian children make their journeys alone.

Volodymyr ZelenskyyIt may seem strange to consider human traffickers to be in anyway empathic. Stranger still perhaps to see President Putin as an empathic leader. The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is perhaps a better example of who we might at first think of as an empathic leader. Zelenskyy knows and understands his people. He is aligned with them, and so uses his understanding to serve their needs and to be compassionate towards them. But, as we have seen, empathy doesn’t always lead to compassion. The understanding it brings can be used to control people.

Empathic Dictators

Bullies, dictators, despots, all of them need to understand those they wish to control, and cognitive empathy is the perfect tool, since it brings understanding without pain. Consider that without cognitive empathy, a torturer would struggle to do his work well. We often think of bullies as socially inept individuals who take out their torment on others, but the success of bullies depends on the ability to understand what makes their victims afraid. It’s often those who lack the ability to empathise who fall prey to the playground bully. They fail to understand the bully’s intentions, increasing their vulnerability.

Putin understands what he needs to do to hold on to power and has shown he will do whatever it takes. It is difficult for the rest us to understand the thoughts of the Russian public; contact with them has reduced dramatically since the conflict began. But Putin understands them, and he knows what he needs to do to remain their leader. Any public protest is immediately shut down, with long prison terms handed out to scare others planning such things. Putin understands that most of his people can be controlled by fear.

Empathy focuses on either a vicarious affective experience or a cognitive effort to imagine the feelings and perspective of another.

Language is important, too. Putin has been careful not to refer to the war with Ukraine as anything other than a special operation. He understands from the perspective of the Russian public, many of whom have family and friends in Ukraine, that this description is more palatable and less likely to encourage any empathic concern (compassion) for the Ukrainians. Putin goes further by adding a portrayal of the enemy being a faction of Nazis within Ukraine, rather than the country itself and all of its people. Putin knows that, since the Second World War, the Russian psyche has clung on to Nazis as the archetypal enemy.

If the Russian public saw the images the rest of us have seen, if they knew about the bombing of schools, hospitals, theatres, shopping centres, and railway stations full of refugees, it would surely induce empathic concern for the people of Ukraine. A vicarious feeling of the Ukrainians’ pain might be enough for a whole population to turn against a leader, to alleviate that pain. Putin understands this. Through cognitive empathy, he can predict the impact these images would have and how they would make his public feel. And so, he has also taken care of not allowing the Russian public access to media reports or footage of Ukrainians suffering. International media cannot broadcast in Russia and so the Russian public has very limited access to the images of people who look like them being killed or fleeing from their homes. The last thing Putin wants is for the Russian public to feel the pain of the Ukrainians. He wants their compassion to be for Russian soldiers, bravely warring against a fixed out-group enemy, the Nazis.

Social media, too, has been seen as a threat to the required narrative. Facebook and Instagram were banned in Russia in March of this year for “carrying out extremist activities” and Russia’s FSB security service accused Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, of creating an “alternative reality”.15 Alexander Isavnin, a Russian internet privacy researcher, says that “since the start of the special operation in Ukraine, the authorities have sought to fully control the information sphere in the country”. As Putin’s concern for the truth getting to his people spirals, it seems likely that this trend will continue. “We should be prepared for more censorship,”15 adds Isavnin.


Empathy is a way of understanding. It offers us knowledge concerning the inner situation and intentions of others. While empathy often leads to a prosocial and compassionate reaction, it can also be used against people. It provides a powerful tool for the manipulator. By maintaining the required narrative and shutting down alternatives, a leader can take a country to war. People can be swayed to empathise and feel compassion for the wrong side if they hear what they need to hear. The danger for such a leader becomes apparent once his people discover the truth, the truth seen by the millions of Europeans welcoming Ukrainian refugees who vicariously feel the pain of these real victims of the war. Empathy can start a war, but can also end one, and bring down dictators. Empathy can be a powerful weapon. Like any powerful weapon, it needs to be deployed carefully and with good reason. We should all learn to understand how empathy influences our actions and take care to use it wisely.

About the Author

Dr. Peter Sear

Dr. Peter Sear, Psychologist, Author, and founder of The Empathic Minds Organisation gained his PhD on Understanding Empathic Leadership in Elite Sport from Loughbrough University. He is currently working with leaders, devising courses, and writing a book on Empathic Leadership, to be published by Routledge in the spring of 2023.


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