Virtual reality and refugee crises: Impact of “Clouds Over Sidra”

Screenshot from the VR documentary, "Clouds Over Sidra." Four women standing in the foreground, against the backdrop of a refugee camp.
Clouds Over Sidra, a VR documentary by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk in partnership with the United Nations and Samsung. Accessed via the UNVR website.

While the Syrian refugee crisis has elicited varying responses from different nations, the American perspective remains critically understudied, even in the light of evidence suggesting that the U.S. public opinion toward refugees is less favorable than in other countries (Carlier, 2016).

Studies have pointed out that quality information sharing in the context of a refugee crisis is of paramount importance—not only does it lead to improved solutions for forced migrants and help mitigate tensions in host communities (Lee et al., 2023), but it is also crucial in facilitating communication between aid providers and recipients, helping decision-making, and expediting response efforts (Najjar et al., 2019; Prajogo & Olhager, 2012). While refugee crises are not a new global challenge, host communities may still need to adapt to managing them in real-time environments regarding information sharing.

“Despite the challenges, technology offers a promising avenue to engender a more compassionate and understanding perspective on such refugee crises.”

Virtual reality and refugee crises

Despite the challenges, technology offers a promising avenue to engender a more compassionate and understanding perspective on such refugee crises. Among emerging technologies, virtual reality (VR) stands out for its immersive qualities, offering an unparalleled ability to elicit empathy by virtually placing users in someone else’s shoes (Shin & Biocca, 2018; Xu & Zhang, 2022). Empirical research has shown that using VR technology can substantially enhance the experience of empathy, leading to more positive attitudes and reduced stereotypes regarding individuals in outgroups (Chen & Ibasco, 2023; Nikolaou et al., 2022).

We used the documentary “Clouds Over Sidra” for our study, employing an experimental approach. “Clouds Over Sidra” was the first VR film in partnership with the United Nations, seeking to bring viewers to the Syrian refugee camp and raise empathy toward refugees. The film was made by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk. Our study included two experimental groups (VR vs. Non-VR) where participants were randomly assigned by the online survey tool, Qualtrics. All the participants completed the pre-survey in Qualtrics. After random assignment, the participants in the VR condition watched the documentary “Clouds Over Sidra” using a VR headset. After watching the documentary, participants were directed back to the computer to complete the post-manipulation questions. On the other hand, the participants in the non-VR condition watched the documentary on a computer without using VR technology.


The findings from our study showed that VR condition was associated with higher levels of empathy, and the increased levels were subsequently linked to a greater intention to share information about the Syrian refugee crisis. The results indicated that being in the VR condition was associated with higher levels of empathy, i.e., people who viewed the documentary in the VR format were more empathetic. As for their intention to share information, this study revealed that empathy played a significant role, such that stronger empathy was related to greater intention to share information about the Syrian refugee crisis. Studies in the past have attempted to sort out the relationships between empathy aroused by immersing in messages using a VR format and the viewers’ subsequent attitudes and behavior. Although a handful of research demonstrated that VR technology has the capacity to strengthen viewers’ empathetic sentiments (e.g., Sundar et al., 2017), associations with the actual prosocial behavior and intention, such as intention to share information, were not clear.

The principle of humanitarian communication centers on the criticality of collecting and disseminating lifesaving information in times of crises (e.g., Wilson et al., 2019). As such, not only could humanitarian communication create chances for the affected communities to propagate their predicaments and communicate their needs to the global community, but the effective information sharing enabled by humanitarian communication also facilitates coordination of humanitarian efforts, thus synergizing recovery impacts. With its function in information sharing, humanitarian communication plays an essential role in mobilizing support to the impacted populations. Thus, it is critical in alleviating the plight of the affected populations.

Empathy’s pivotal role

The current study made clear the underlying psychological mechanism leading to intention to share information, suggesting the pivotal role of empathy in the viewers. Although previous studies generally agreed that the immersive nature of the computer-generated environment created by VR technology has the capacity to boost empathy in the viewers, the link between empathy aroused in the viewers and their subsequent intention to share information remained largely unclear. Previous studies (e.g., Altay & Labonte, 2014; Prajogo & Olhager, 2012; Sakurai & Murayama, 2019) suggested that raising awareness and enhanced information sharing are critical for the alleviation of the crises. As demonstrated by the current study, where VR technology was employed, the role of viewers’ empathetic experience was proven to be the critical mediator in leading to prosocial behavioral intention to share information.

“… where VR technology was employed, the role of viewers’ empathetic experience was proven to be the critical mediator in leading to prosocial behavioral intention to share information”

Using “Clouds Over Sidra” as a case study, our project takes an important step toward understanding the associations between VR, empathy, and information sharing intention. Our findings show promise in the use of VR technology in humanitarian crises. The present study clarifies the role of emergent technologies in humanitarian communication and, more specifically, in fostering relationships of care and proximity in media audiences. Our findings make a contribution to the nuanced adoption of new technologies in building relationships between media consumers and “distant sufferers” and consequently, helping alleviate the human suffering of forced migration with the help of films such as “Clouds Over Sidra.”


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Recommended citation

Borah, P., Lee, D. K. L., Mu, D., Vishnevskaya, A., Irom, B., Price, R., Ramazan, O., & Lee, Y. J. (July, 2024). Virtual reality and refugee crises: Impact of “Clouds Over Sidra”. Critical Augmented and Virtual Reality Researchers Network (CAVRN).

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