By Jason Cotsapas

“All eyes on Rafah” was the inescapable image of the day. It was impossible to go through more than two stories on Instagram without encountering the same AI-generated image, bold capital letters in the foreground, mountains and a generic camp settlement behind it. The message, and its rapid status of social media ubiquity, confirmed that the world was watching.

To watch, in this context, is not a passive act. It conveys active participation in a collective moral judgment. To watch with all eyes, then, is to both descriptively and normatively stress undivided attention. We tell the perpetrators that there is no escaping our glare, nowhere to hide from the gaze of enraged humanity.

What is undivided attention? When I play soccer, I devote the entirety of my concentration to the immediate task at hand, the next pass, the next piece of defending. In my torts exam, all sweat and high heart rate and nervous regret that I didn’t study more, I am immersed in the fact pattern (at least for a good fifteen minutes; adrenaline can only work for so long). The commonality here is that undivided attention operates in an extremely well-defined, short-term context. It is simply an act of living utterly, almost out of bodily necessity, in the present.

Outside these confines, when it comes to attitudes about states of affairs— swept up as they are in philosophy, political opinions, occasional point-scoring, as well as the fact that we live busy complex lives in a busy complex world—there is a different flavour to the idea of having all eyes on something. It becomes a process of moral selection.

Novels, however old or recent, often serendipitously serve very topical bits of wisdom. Thus in the Saul Bellow one I’m currently reading, I came across this query at around the same time as the famous post: “Did one turn aside the force of thousands of declines or dooms or deaths and then decide, by some process of selection too remote ever to be known, to fix on certain ones?”[i]

It is powerful to see the widespread, passionate condemnation of a government. This is especially the case when the government is thousands of kilometers away. The global outcry about the atrocities in Gaza is a manifestation of the peculiar strength of social media; this is a world in which we can mobilize public opinion extremely quickly and forcefully.

All eyes, though? Of course this is a rhetorical flourish, of course we can devote ourselves to many things at once. There are, however, structural blind spots in the way we pay attention to suffering. Myanmar, Haiti, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and South Sudan, among other countries and regions, are all experiencing humanitarian catastrophes. While they feature in the news, it is with far less regularity. They scarcely ever show up on my social media feed, and probably don’t on yours either.

In my time at Refugee Law Project in Kampala, I have had the chance to see, first-hand, the devastating effects of forced displacement in East Africa. This is a particularly volatile region, especially since civil war broke out in Sudan last April. Uganda currently hosts more asylum seekers and refugees than any other country in Africa, and this figure of 1.6 million is growing quickly[ii]. Every day, people who have fled their home countries come into our office asking for legal advice. Their stories are often extremely harrowing—I have met victims of gang rape, political persecution, kidnapping, and hunger. I encountered a group of lawyers eking out a subsistence life in Uganda because they cannot practice here. This individualization of the effects of war and discrimination and poverty hammers home a human perspective that numbers alone can never provide. Such individualization then feeds into a desire for a greater understanding of regional geopolitics. Seeing the smaller picture goes a long way towards making better sense of the bigger picture.

Two continents and an ocean away, without the constant news coverage that other conflicts receive, people usually don’t have the opportunity to see the smaller picture. All eyes turn to certain places because those are the only places that appear in our line of vision.

In my first week here, I went to a workshop on improving access to justice for displaced people. In attendance were representatives of various humanitarian organisations. The buzzword of the summit was “sensitization”. We all agreed that it was important to make asylum seekers and refugees aware of their rights, just as it was paramount to increase awareness among the rest of Uganda’s population. The more groups like RLP sensitize police officers, border agents, and host communities—towns and villages that accommodated proportionally large numbers of refugees relative to Ugandan citizens— the easier it is to prevent misunderstanding among refugees and the people with whom they most interact. More knowledge, more understanding, more humanization, more peace.

The good news is that there is a group of actors deeply committed to helping forced migrants. At RLP, we represent them in criminal cases; help with legal documentation for matters like marriage, divorce, and school enrolment; offer English lessons for adults; and provide general legal advice. Other groups, like the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UNHCR, provide protection to vulnerable women and children, and aid people who want to resettle to another country.

There is, however, sometimes a palpable disconnect between noble pursuits and wide-ranging solutions. Resources within the humanitarian sphere are painfully finite. Uganda already suffers from high levels of poverty and material lack. Its general population is growing at the high rate of three percent a year[iii]. At the office, I have frequently encountered individuals and families that have been moved back and forth between various organisations. People regularly come to RLP to ask about resettlement and protection from violence; when we tell them that such matters do not fall within RLP’s ambit of activity, the response is that the organisations that are meant to address them have turned them away. Refugee status and the prospect of finding work are opportunities, not rights. The same goes for resettlement.

The law, moreover, is not a catch-all answer to problems big and small. Any moral desire to improve lives, already handicapped by limited resources, is tempered by the restricted nature of legal solutions. An asylum seeker who is deeply unhappy in Uganda cannot seek resettlement, for instance, on the grounds of deep unhappiness.

On reflection, I feel like I’m dangling between opposite poles of expectations. The first is that of sober realization, of understanding the limitations of what my organisation, other organisations, and the law in general, can achieve. The other, however, is an expectation that we can do more to get a better sense of the smaller picture. Sensitization encompasses the appreciation that local problems have worldwide dimensions, require global attention. This is not news to anyone. A few months ago the president of Zambia declared a national emergency owing to the extreme drought in the country[iv]. People will move in greater numbers and with greater frequency because of events like these. Climate change and wars, each exacerbating the effects of the other, don’t respect borders, national or continental. We all know this.

Last year, the British House of Commons Library posted that in 2020, Britain was one of only seven countries to meet the target, set by the United Nations, of spending 0.7% of national GNI on Overseas Development Assistance[v]. More spending means more money to actors on the ground. These are the local and international groups whom I have witnessed do impressive things. This is turn helps governments like Uganda’s, that are committed to granting all forced migrants the right to enter the country and apply for asylum.

It is nice to get reminders that there are legal instruments to improve the situation as well. Recently the European Court of Human rights ordered that Hungary’s government pay 200 million euros for violating the rights of asylum seekers, in contravention of EU standards[vi]. As we have seen with recent ICJ and ICC rulings, international law, at the very least, can serve to keep the accused on their toes.

But in order for law and politics to be effective, people who feel they don’t directly have skin in the game have to also pay more attention. In a saturated market for brain-consuming material, it is difficult to see how this can happen.

One avenue to explore is the idea that not all distances are made equal. They tend to shrink when we become aware of our governments’ complicity in propping up, or turning a blind eye to, oppression in geographically far-away parts. Complicity, hence moral responsibility, tears away at the veil of political solipsism that physical separation can create. Protests arise from the painful realization that our elected politicians fly the banner of such complicity. This is an illuminating political awakening, this self-aware drawing-out of the relationship between local democracy and distant suffering. It is, however, once again arbitrary to think responsibility begins and ends with any one place. As with climate change, as with poverty, as with the existence of unstable regimes the world over, a moderate degree of reflection will allow more drawing out of the same kind. We feel we don’t have skin in the game, but a bit of hard thought will prove that this feeling is illusory.

Throughout this blog post, I have tried to convey, in so many roundabouts, the importance of the small picture. It is amazing how far experiences, literature, movies, art, and conversation help with this.

Let us direct all our eyes at Rafah. But let us also somehow at least try to direct them all everywhere else, all at once.

[i] Saul Bellow, The Dean’s December (New York: Pocket Books, 1982), 77.

[ii] Global Focus, “Uganda”,

[iii] National Population Council, “Population Growth in Uganda: Challenges and Opportunities”,

[iv] Euronews. “Zambia Declares National Emergency as Drought Devastates Food and Electricity Supply.” Euronews, March 1, 2024.

[v] House of Commons Library, “The 0.7% aid target”, December 4, 2023,,and%20Development%20(OECD)%20rules.

[vi] Jennifer Rankin, “ECJ to Fine Hungary €1m a Day Until It Complies With EU Refugee Laws,” The Guardian, June 13, 2024,