Empathy’s a funny old thing. When it comes to three-legged kittens and fake cancer posts, the Brits dish it out by the bucketload. But while a sad-faced, one-eyed donkey pleading for human saviours can generate 14 million Facebook shares, it’s a different story for poverty-stricken migrants.
“HE’S NOT 14!” A Daily Mail reader screeched into the comment section of the latest Calais escape story, apparently the proud owner of a self-awarded age identification degree. “Clearly a bunch of lies to get into the UK. WE DON’T WANT YOU. GO HOME!” (Daily Mail readers always write in capitals. I’m not sure if it’s because they’re in a state of permanent anger or they’re just not bright enough to find the Caps Lock key.)
As the worst migrant crisis of modern times intensifies across Europe, it’s no surprise that tensions are running high. From the catastrophic Brexit vote to a leering Nigel Farage peddling Nazi propaganda to the masses, the voice of the anti-immigration brigade hasn’t shouted this loudly since Tommy Robinson was leading the EDL. Meanwhile Little Englanders have dug their heels into their immaculately pruned Sussex gardens, buying into the ‘cockroach and vermin’ bile spewing from the tabloid press. And with these sweeping generalisations emerges a new and problematic phenomenon: the empathy expiration date.
It was over a year ago that little Alan Kurdi was found washed up on a Greek beach, attracting widespread horror from Westerners and cash donations. But while empathy for young children in conflict remains, the older generation are not so lucky.
Perhaps the 14-year-old refugees in Calais are older than they claim. Perhaps they’re not escaping war in Syria, but are economic migrants from Eritrea. Perhaps they’ve left behind a cushy £20k a year job selling mangos in Asmara for the free Sky TV they saw advertised on the telly. That seems like a reasonable reason to travel across the world in the back of a frozen foods van and risk drowning in the Mediterranean. Or perhaps they’re poverty-stricken and desperate, willing to lie, risk their lives and sacrifice everything in the hope they might find a better life or scrape a bit of money together for their families. Perhaps the risk of death in the back of a lorry is better than any other option?
It’s not just migrants facing the brunt of Britain’s empathy expiration dates. If a child is abused at home, the internet will be flooded with weepy-eyed emojis and concern for their future. Fast-forward 10 years, and you can be guaranteed the same level of empathy doesn’t apply, with troubled teenagers written off as criminals and druggie scum- lazy scroungers who need to get a job. Apparently nobody bothers to make the correlation between an abusive difficult childhood and the struggle to adapt to society later in life. It’s as though a magical forcefield takes over at the age of 18 and we’re suddenly expected to become fully responsible for our actions.
For migrants not born in the UK and with no official rights, the situation is even more dire. Fuelled by bigoted political groups like Britain First, we have allowed hatred towards these people to fester, like a six-month-old Chinese takeaway forgotten at the back of the fridge. It’s led to racist abuse. Community scuffles. Not to mention a referendum vote that’s already on its way to crippling the UK economy.
“Let’s build a wall around the UK. Stop all the imports and exports across the channel. Station the army at the border to shoot anyone who dares to pass.” It won’t be long before someone suggests we put the refugees to work on a nice farm, send them off to a special camp if they get too chopsy.
The harsh reality is there’s no easy solution to the refugee crisis. Britain doesn’t have the money, space or resources to rehouse half the population of the Middle East and the tensions are showing no sign of abating. But while the lack of solutions is worrying, our lack of humanity is even more concerning.
We’re not talking about insects, or chickens or even dogs. We’re talking about real human beings, with families and thoughts and feelings- just like everyone else. They weren’t lucky enough to be born in a politically stable country, with access to education and healthcare. So why are we punishing them for wanting better?
We might not be able to bring peace to the Middle East, but we can get our compassion radars back in check.