On the train back to Brighton on Thursday night (after one of the loveliest evenings I’ve had in ages), I found myself thinking about the current refugee crisis and trying to imagine the circumstances that might drive me to leave my home, with only the barest of essentials, and undertake a terrifying, life-endangering journey to Somewhere – anywhere – Else. How unsafe would I have to feel trying to go about my daily life before I would risk that leap into the unknown? What would it take to make me abandon this flat and my hopes, and flee?
I have no idea. I couldn’t imagine it. I still can’t – I can’t picture an England, a Brighton, a Horsham that I would fear that much. I can’t picture a situation that would make me so fearful, so truly scared for my own life that the only option would be to run. I vaguely know what it might entail – shadowy images of soldiers, gunfire, bombings, smoke and dust, lives turned to rubble in seconds, sirens, screams, bloodstains. My only ‘experience’ of life in a warzone is an imagining, hastily thrown together using memories of news footage and photographs, novels and films. It is entirely fictional, so I don’t really know how to imagine it. And how lucky to be in that position. But it feels like a failure.
The current refugee crisis is partly down to a spectacular failure to empathise. To imagine. It is a basic human thing, imagination – without it, we wouldn’t have invented anything. Without it, nothing can ever change. Nothing can ever be anything other than what it is, right now, right there in front of you. We would never help anyone, if we could not empathise: “that looks heavy, can I carry it for you?” or “you’re shivering, you must be freezing, have my jacket”. Small sentences, but within each, a tiny, golden spark of understanding that it is good and decent and kind and human to alleviate the suffering of others, if and where possible.
If you can’t imagine what it is to lead a different life, even for just a moment, something has gone very wrong. I think it’s why middle-aged men across the world deny women access to safe abortions – they fail to imagine what it might be like to have something grow inside you that you did not ask for, or plan for, or cannot support. I think it’s why benefits for the young and the disabled are cut – because someone could not imagine those lives, couldn’t hold an image in their head for long enough for it to mean something.
The instinct to build a home, have a family, put down roots, is a strong one, and the instinct to inhabit that life, once you’ve made it – protect it, fight for it – is equally fierce. So when people willingly leave the lives they’ve built, we can assume it’s for good reason. If you have looked at your circumstances, weighed up the costs of staying vs. leaving, and chosen to become rootless, homeless, earthless – you’re clearly desperate. And if you’re living under a violent and oppressive regime, and your choices are: being killed, becoming an instrument of that regime, or escape, then by choosing escape, you’re not only saving yourself, but you’re also trying to save everyone else.
It’s concerning then that it was the general public who were quicker and more able to empathise, and subsequently act in the face of the crisis, than our government. Not entirely surprising – they have previous, after all – but still deeply worrying. The ‘Daily Mail’ mentality seems viral at the moment: “we don’t have room for them, we can’t have them here; why should we help them?” For a start, it’s utterly untrue that “we don’t have room” – almost 20,000 homes in London sit empty for most of the year. And in 2012, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment worked out that the percentage of England that is built upon is 2.27%. And yes, obviously we need green space and farmland and floodplains; I’m from farming stock, you’ll have to prise lush green spaces from my cold dead hands. But still: less than three per cent – there is space somewhere.
Like everyone else, I’m glad Cameron’s bowed to the pressure to accept more refugees. It’s the right thing to do – because not doing so speaks such volumes. Not helping sends an alarming, dark message. It says that we can’t empathise. It says we cannot imagine what it is to have a different life. It says: the thought that it could be us one day – by a hideous flick of the wrist and roll of the dice, it could be us, looking for shelter and the kindness of strangers – has never crossed our tiny minds.