Is Public Interest in the Refugee Crisis Falling?

Aylan Kurdi’s photo inspired millions of people across to the world to search and look for information related to the refugee crisis. The humanitarian crisis suddenly went viral and there was a noticeable shift in public opinion. In the UK, most previous images of refugees had been of young men boarding trucks in Calais. The image of Aylan helped people realise that the crisis was wider and extended beyond their local neighbourhood.

This surge of interest caused thousands of people to search for and find refugee related information online. Aid and charity groups that had been neglected before now suddenly had thousands in donations pouring in every day. Groups and pages on Facebook saw their membership rise exponentially within the space of a few weeks.

Increased public awareness allowed these groups’ humanitarian response to scale up in size and also enabled the creation of many more similar local groups all over Europe. As a result, Calais especially became inundated with supplies; so much so that much of it had to be thrown away. However, this was temporary and aid groups soon responded by hiring warehouses and putting a better supply chain system in place. Where in the past the focus had been on essentials, now the volunteers could focus on timing those deliveries to an ordered schedule and invest in ‘extras’, like art in the Jungle.

To the vast majority of people, the shock response to a dead child’s photo is not dissimilar to the reaction to a catastrophic earthquake or a major disaster. Engagement in a current crisis event rises exponentially, more so in modern times because of ease of sharing stories via social media, but it quickly settles back down close to its previous long term average.

Caitria and Morgan O’Neill, the founders of Recovers.org, talk about this in the video below.


The sudden upsurge and subsequent decline of public passion for the cause is not unique to a specific geography and has been seen across the world regardless of the type or scale of the disaster. In fact, Google Trends shows that the Refugee Crisis is going through a similar cycle.

Google trends showing public interest in disasters hits a peak during the event but falls quickly after.

Google trends showing public interest in disasters hits a peak during the event but falls quickly after. Source: Google Trends.

The millions of people who searched for and wanted to know more about the refugee crisis are not searching for it anymore – partly down to their own diminishing  and partly down to the fact that the really keen volunteers are already on the ground and know where and how to find help.

The spike in September for the ‘refugees’ search term is clearly related to Alan’s photo – stories about which were splashed on front pages of all major newspapers. Nothing since has captured the public imagination quite so much. This graph is representative of how the wider public reacts to all major disasters. We were all searching for Nepal after the quake, but now, not so much even though recovery is ongoing and people are still homeless or in temporary shelters.

The difference here, however, is that the refugee crisis is an ongoing catastrophe, not a single event. However, the public imagination is accustomed to responding to singular events like quakes and floods. So it becomes important that volunteers and activists understand and recognise this so they can adapt their message.

So what can change the current downward trend? According to some, new narratives will affect how the #RefugeeCrisis is perceived and may increase public concern to previous levels. Right now, in refugee camps across Europe and on the migration trail, there are doctors who are now unable to help the ill, wealthy families who now live in tents, photographers who are now the objects of photos splashed on the front pages of newspapers – these are the future stories that can continue to shift public opinion and keep the refugee crisis in the public space.