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Why are we so heartless about refugees?

Source: The New York Times

There are 21.3 million refugees and 65.3 million people worldwide who have been displaced by force from their homes. Every day, shocking statistics such as these scream at us from bold type headlines and tear-jerking televised messages. Yet this constant stream of numbers has failed to shock us enough. Instead the refugee crisis has become a normal part of our lives.

A few weeks ago, I read a book by Emma Jane Kirby called The Optician of Lampedusa that convinced me of a simple solution. In this book based on a true story, an Italian optician goes on a leisurely boat trip with his friends. They end up encountering hundreds of drowning migrants whose inadequately buoyant smugglers’ boat had sunk. Although they save as many as they can, they end up emotionally scarred and disillusioned for life.

Reading this novella had me in tears and convinced that I had to do something myself, no matter how small, to help the refugees. But it shouldn’t have to take such a tragic personal encounter to change the way we think. We should not have to be emotionally shocked into action. Unfortunately this is the most effective option in a world that is full to the brim with information. Not everyone can witness such shocking events, especially us students who are drowning under the weight of thousands of pounds of debt. Equally, you don’t want to donate money to charity because you barely have enough to live on. Its effort to seek out somewhere to volunteer, and you can’t exactly hop on a plane to a war-torn country to experience first-hand what’s going on. We lack an emotional reaction and connection to the crisis because it is far-away, too complicated to be solved by us, and too common, but writers such as Kirby can recount an extremely personal story in an emotive way.

But why is this emotion needed?

There has been such an overhaul of information and figures that the refugees have become an impersonal collective. We have forgotten that each person seeking refuge has their own identity, their own story, and their own interests. We have forgotten that they are real and human. Most refugees are seeking a better and safer life, not to steal our jobs or extort our health service. Just because the most notorious terrorists look Arabic and have Arabic names does not mean that every person from the Middle East is a terrorist. The popularity of ISIS as an Islamist extreme group does not mean that every member of Islam is a threat. Generalisation has become our biggest enemy and has created a mass prejudice that has made the Western world unsympathetic to a serious humanitarian crisis.

This generalisation has combined with a lack of empathy, possibly because it has been over 70 years since the world wars when we were at risk of being bombed in our own town. Today our government interferes in conflicts such as the one in Syria but our homes are not being destroyed and our civilians are not being hurt. Now it is in other nations that families are being ripped apart, and this distance seems to have given us licence to be heartless.

Before reading Kirby’s book, I believe I was one of the people described above who was desensitised by the vast statistics and convinced of my inability to help the situation. I was lazy. The deeply personal account of the optician combined with the shock factor of the contrast between a holiday outing and drowning refugees broke my heart and persuaded me that it is better to find at least a small gesture rather than to be inactive. The refugee crisis does not need to be a fact of life.

I believe that as students we have the power to get the ball rolling. The best thing we can do is to spread awareness of personal accounts such as the optician’s in an attempt to stir up in others the same passion that I found. Once our emotional reactions have been restored and the refugees have become individual human beings once again, more people can take on the role of educating the wider population of the refugee situation and their human rights. This could lead to a following that could encourage the government to increase their aid and slacken their immigration restrictions. This will slowly erase those prejudices that have become so normal. If only we can learn to care again.