I was listening to radio 5 live this morning whilst (belatedly) finishing making my Christmas pudding and cake. I found the live phone-in so distressing that I had to turn it off – I have finally learned that introjecting huge amounts of negative emotion from others at times when I my mood is unstable is worse than a bad idea; it is positively harmful.
The subject of the phone-in was today’s announcement from the UNHCR that the wealthy countries of Europe need to do more to help the growing problem of Syrian refugees. Although it is universally agreed that whenever possible the victims of warfare are best served by staying as close to familiar territory as is practicable, there are now so many displaced people that sanctuary is needed further afield. The Lebanon has taken so many Syrian refugees that one in four people in that country is now a refugee. This is in a country that has had more than its fair share of conflict in the past 50 years; a country that already gives a home to many Palestinian refugees. Turkey also has over a million refugees and is struggling to cope – a country that has a fairly fragile political infrastructure, and is only just keeping the tension between western secularism and hard line Islamism under control.
Germany has apparently agreed to take 30,000 refugees and has urged its fellow western European states to help with the refugee crisis. Britain currently has 90 Syrian refugees – and this is an increase from the 24 that it was prepared to admit in the summer. Whilst the political debate rages children are at increasing risk of literally freezing to death in their sleep, because they have no proper shelter.
The debate (I hesitate to grace it with the term) was almost entirely centred on two points; firstly that Britain was ‘full up’ and had no resources for refugees, and secondly that it wasn’t our problem. These are Arab speaking people from a long way away, Muslims, and they should be given refugee status in the Gulf States.
The callers repeatedly said that we were a small island, that our NHS was overwhelmed, that ‘people’ living comfortable lives in the UK had no idea how bad it was for those who struggled to make ends meet. I failed to understand how, say, 1000 Syrian refugees were going to make any difference to the very real struggle for low waged people. I agree that the refugees are likely to need some medical attention, but again the impact in the larger scale of things is unlikely to be significant.
One caller infuriated me by her assertion that the 30,000 refugees in Germany would, in due course, get German citizenship, and therefore under EU rules ‘would come to this country anyway’. There seem to be numerous unsaid assumptions – that the refugees would want German citizenship rather than wanting to return to their own country as soon as it is safe to do so; that such citizenship would be readily forthcoming if it was desired (the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not have any citizenship, merely ‘Palestinian refugee status’ and are not allowed to work for Lebanese employers). There is also an assumption that German citizens would want to move to the UK – I haven’t noticed this to be the case.
The most distressing aspect of the phone-in was the complete lack of compassion demonstrated by all but one caller. This had obviously been achieved by making Syrian refugees ‘other’, no longer humans like ourselves. This dehumanisation is an effective way of blocking all emotion, particularly sympathy, empathy or compassion, because the refugee becomes totally depersonalised. The UK government’s repeated assertion that it has sent large amounts of money to aid the refugee crisis is another side of this coin. Sending money assuages the collective conscience whilst avoiding having to recognise the human dramas playing out on the ground.
The single caller who supported the call for assistance with refugees had worked in Lebanon with people displaced from Syria. He tried to ask one female caller what she would do if she could see a refugee family face to face, and knew that there was a high risk that her children would freeze to death in their sleep during this winter because of lack of adequate shelter. She just kept ducking the question.
Naively I thought that perhaps UK citizens who are struggling to heat their homes and feed their families might have more compassion for refugees, not less. Instead they apparently feel deep resentment and antagonism to any suggestion of Syrian refugees coming to the UK. (I hasten to add that I am not tarring all low income families with the same brush – I am reflecting on what I heard.) Meanwhile the more comfortably off, and the rich, are on the whole damning through their silence and inactivity. There must be easily 1000 families across the country who are well off, have spare rooms in their homes, and who could easily take in a single refugee, and possibly even a mother and small children. Who has tried asking? Where are the churches in this? It is ironic that at Christmas time of all seasons, when the Christian church focuses on the birth of a baby to refugee parents, that the established church of England does not take a lead on this.
I am accused of idealism, of having ridiculous and impractical ideas. I remain unrepentant. If we don’t reach for the sky we will certainly remain planted to the ground, bogged down by our inability to recognise that another homeless human being fleeing a war zone is just another human being like our self. I am proud to have an abundance of imagination and empathy, to be able to feel acutely the pain of others. It is what makes me human.