Who deserves compassion? The moral and emotional dilemmas of volunteering in the ‘refugee crisis’

Gaja Maestri*, Pierre Monforte

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Since the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, civil society across Europe has participated in an unprecedented wave of support towards migrants. This article focuses on the volunteers engaged in this movement and explores how they relate emotions of compassion and evaluations about the ‘deservingness’ of refugees. We do so by analysing the moral dilemmas British volunteers face in their interaction with refugees, and the strategies they develop to avoid the difficulties that emerge when judging who the ‘deserving’ refugees are. We illustrate how these coping strategies lead them to emphasise the practicality of their role and to move beyond logics of deservingness. We argue that these dilemmatic situations reshape the meaning of compassionate acts in ambivalent ways: while reinforcing a tendency to create an emotional distance, they also allow volunteers to challenge idealised representations of refugees and foreground the political nature of their vulnerability.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)920-935
Number of pages16
Issue number5
Early online date19 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access page (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). Funding: The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship and/or
publication of this article: this work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Project title: Exploring the Frames of Altruistic Action, 2017–2020. Grant number: ES/N015274/1.


  • compassion
  • deservingness
  • emotions
  • innocence
  • solidarity
  • volunteering
  • vulnerability
  • ‘refugee crisis’


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