Compassion: Immigration and Asylum Law

Compassion: Immigration and Asylum Law
15 Jun 2017, 14:00 to 15 Jun 2017, 17:30
Conference / Symposium
Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, 17 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DR

A symposium exploring compassion in relation to immigration and asylum law – through presentations and discussion, including speakers from academia, practice, and the judiciary, plus the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.


  • David Bolt, The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration
  • Dr. Hugo Storey, Upper Tribunal Judge (Immigration & Asylum Chamber)
  • Mark Symes, Barrister, Garden Court Chambers; co-author of Asylum Law and Practice
  • Professor James Sweeney, School of Law, Lancaster University; author of The European Court of Human Rights in the post-Cold War Era: Universality in Transition
  • Lisa Doyle, Head of Advocacy, Refugee Council
  • Dermot Feenan, Associate Research Fellow, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies; Founder & Convenor, Law & Compassion Research Network
  • Peter Grady, Senior Legal Officer, UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) (UK)


  • Sue Conlan, Senior Associate, Fountain Solicitors; former Chair of Irish Refugee Council
  • Dr. David Cantor, Director of the Refugee Law Initiative, University of London

Immigration and asylum law can affect the most profoundly important issues for humans, such as home, family, relations with loved ones, welfare and livelihood. The law may enable survival, and the ability to flourish away from one’s homeland. 

Yet, consideration of compassion in relation to immigration and asylum law often produces the most pronounced antinomies. The person exiled from home due to war or persecution can elicit deep concern to alleviate another’s suffering. This was witnessed in 2015 in the aftermath of the drowning of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in the Mediterranean Sea, fleeing Syria with his family. 

A flipside to law’s enablement of survival and facilitation of flourishing, however, is its indifference to plight and death. Asylum seekers and migrants risk constant abjection as the unwanted other. The acute and immediate need of the other can elicit resentment and generate opposition. Migration can expose concerns and fears about the dangerous or undeserving other, sometimes reflected in a wider range of laws on, for instance, national security, social welfare, housing, and education. The plight of the refugee can lead to fleeting, ephemeral and largely ineffectual pity. 

It is now commonplace for immigration to be used as an overt political issue among parties vying for power. The seismic political events of 2016 – the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump – were bound up to a large extent with this issue. Hence, changes to immigration law and overseas aid policies can become a priority for new administrations in a way that was far less conceivable ten or fifteen years ago. For example, prior to the 2017 G7 summit, the White House announced large cuts to the US foreign aid programme. Without funding, many programmes to assist immigrants and asylum seekers cannot operate. Opportunities for international exchange, too, may cease or be scaled back. 

The shift in recent years across many countries to a new form of anti-immigrant rhetoric can translate into profound alterations in the experiences of newcomers. Migrants can be subject to stereotyping in the media and in public debate. Violence towards migrants and suspected migrants can increase. It has been suggested by many international rights organisations, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, that compassion should inform states’ responses to the refugee crisis. Concern has also been raised at the trauma experienced by children as a result of the effect of immigration rules on families. 

All this raises several pressing questions: first, and most obviously, should immigration and asylum law incorporate compassion? Is not compassion’s benevolent self-image suspect by aestheticizing suffering and jeopardising an effective politics by risking alliance with mercurial emotion? 

In any event, is compassion too vague a concept to be legally useful? Can compassion, if it were to apply, encompass groups such as migrants, whose disparate identities and needs may require different response? At what level and in what ways and how would compassion be most effective: internationally, regionally or nationally? What institutional mechanisms might be needed to oversee compassion, and should it be enforceable? If compassion is to be allowed, are there proper limits on its exercise? Moreover, is there a risk that compassion can undercut rights, the legal framework, at least for refugee law, that underpins the post-Second World War period? 

Compassion features explicitly and implicitly in a number of laws on immigration and asylum. In the United Kingdom, rules on leave to remain provide for a family reunion if a child over 18 years of age is ‘living alone outside the UK in the most exceptional compassionate circumstances’. In 2016, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration stated in his report on family reunion applications that the Home Office needed to show that it ‘manages applications not just efficiently and effectively, but thoughtfully and with compassion’. 

How is such ‘compassion’ to be understood? Under what circumstances can it be applied? Arguably, much of the case law avoids rigorous analysis of the concept. Why? Should judges, outside direct engagement with a provision on ‘compassion’ in legislation, express compassion towards parties to litigation? 

The importance of compassion when considering immigration and asylum law deserves further attention.

Academic Coordinator:  Dermot Feenan, Associate Research Fellow, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies; Founder & Convenor, Law & Compassion Research Network.  Enquiries:

Organised in association with the Law & Compassion Research Network

3 BSB CPD hours

Fees - General Admission: £59.00; Student £20.00


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