15/06/2014 17:35 BST | Updated 15/08/2014 06:59 BST

Why Does Our Collective Empathy So Often Fail to Manifest in Our Treatment of Refugees?


There are moments where, with stomach-churning speed, our lives rearrange themselves around us and, when the dust settles, their familiar patterns and grooves are destroyed.

For most of us these will be times of personal tragedy or wild success. They won't be our country's collapse into war, politically-motivated murder of loved ones or the police hammering at our door in the night.

CARA - the Council for At-Risk Academics - deals with stories like this all the time. In their work with academics facing persecution and violence, they supported the 26-year old Syrian who was tortured in the same rooms he used to learn and teach in. They helped the Iraqi Physics lecturer who dared question conventional religious beliefs and received threats to her life and children. And they backed the Zimbabwean human rights lecturer beaten by the state police for his political activism.

Refugees consistently face some of the toughest choices imaginable - whether to stay where they are and face rape, torture or death or leave behind their family, everything they have and know to embark on a dangerous - all too often fatal - flight into the unknown.

Here's where I'm supposed to say: 'Imagine if it were you, facing such a choice. Imagine if it were your mother or brother". But you don't need to be patronised. We're all more than capable of empathy.

Yet we continue to treat refugees with ignorance and even contempt. Why does our collective empathy so often fail to manifest in our treatment of such a vulnerable group? Is it an emotional distance that allows us to forget their stories so fast? Is it all those scare stories about foreigners lying to get into Britain to milk the NHS? Perhaps it is our perception of geographical distance and a preference for avoiding the horrible things that happen far away. And so we sit and smugly tut or even complain about the shame of horrors "over there." As long as it doesn't come "over here" where we might be forced to act.

The truth is we have many reasons to be ashamed of things happening right now and on our own doorstep. Tell the 'not-here' myth to the Pakistani woman violently attacked by her husband's family for the audacity of wanting to finish her PhD. When she fled to the UK she was left so destitute that she was forced to scavenge food from dustbins to survive. CARA found her with severe food poisoning and she used the emergency grant they gave her to buy those extravagant luxuries - food and clothes.

Successive UK governments have greeted people like her with nothing but enforced grinding poverty and institutionalised distrust. And we've let them. This is one of the reasons that organisations like CARA are so overwhelmed, and why their work is so vital. I'd like to say that they're making headway, but the truth is that their work needs our support at every level. Money may make the world go round but draining the ocean of racist anti-immigration rhetoric in which we swim these days is also a crucial part of this fight.

Today marks the start of Refugee Week. 51 weeks a year we choke down an endless diet of hateful and distorted stories about refugees and asylum seekers. But this week we get to shout the truth: we owe these people better. Not because of what they could contribute to our society (a lot) and not because it could be us one day (it could). Because they are human beings who have suffered things that noone ever should.