Empathy and the Refugee Crisis | Charlotte McDonald-Gibson | Granta Magazine

Empathy and the New Refugee Crisis

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson

‘What does it take to remind people that you are human?’

Today, one in seven people is a migrant. This year, crossings of the Mediterranean Sea have already exceeded 300,000, and at least 2,500 lives have been lost in the process. What does it mean to be a migrant – or a refugee – in our time? What human rights can we rely on? And what hope is there for those who have fled their homes? Granta asks its authors to share their reactions to this profound human crisis. Click here to read the other responses in this collection of statements, poems, images and personal reflections from across Europe and beyond.


What does it take to remind people that you are human? For three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, it was a simple outfit of a red -shirt, blue shorts and velcro shoes, the kind of clothes mothers everywhere dress their boys in. Then there was his position, knees pulled up, bottom in the air and head gently tilted to one side, a stance any parent recognises as the one their child finds so comforting in their crib.

Sadly, Aylan also had to be dead, the white foam of the surf rising around his tiny face, his limbs bluing on the sand of a Turkish beach.

He was not the first child to die trying to reach Europe’s shores. There have been hundreds, possibly thousands. In the years I have spent covering the continent’s woeful response to the refugee tragedy on its doorstep, I have had to become accustomed images of terrible suffering and loss, not only from photographs but from vivid testimony of the people who have survived the trip.

There is the young Syrian man shipwrecked off the coast of Libya, swimming towards a tiny lifeless body and holding the dead baby for a second before seeing the child’s father swimming towards them. Unable to bear the grief of the moment the father sees his boy, the young man lets go. A teenage girl – another Syrian survivor of the smuggling boats – is handed eighteen-month-old and nine-month-old girls by their drowning mother and grandfather. She floats in the Mediterranean for days on a rubber ring and only manages to keep one child alive before rescuers finally come for her.

If anything, I have had to keep empathy at bay. It is such a saturation of suffering that somehow as a journalist you have to harden yourself, otherwise it becomes too painful to do your job. Then on 7 April, a few months after I began researching a book on the subject, my first child was born.

In the weeks after Nathaniel’s birth, there was one image I could not shake from my mind. It was of the mothers who gave birth in the sinking smuggling boats, their stories told by survivors who had witnessed the deliveries and by rescue divers who found the bodies of babies still attached to their mothers by their umbilical cord. I had just experienced a pregnancy and birth, that blooming of hope, the excitement at the onset of labour, the hours of terrible pain then the euphoria of the delivery and wriggling new life in front of you.

Imagine doing all that, but in the darkness of the rotting hull of a fishing vessel, surrounded by so many bodies in the grip fear and panic, inhaling hot air saturated with the smell of human waste and diesel fumes, lost in the middle of the sea and knowing that you were drowning.

Would that rush of pure, indescribable joy when your baby finally leaves your body still be there, even if you knew you and the child you brought into the world were about to die? Did they have a chance to hold their babies, to try and comfort them? Did anyone help comfort them at that moment when they were delivering that doomed life, or was the panic so complete that they were alone?

As I nursed Nathaniel in the small hours of the morning, I could not stop putting myself on those boats, imagining the horror of it over and over and over again. What scares me most about the current debate over the refugee crisis is the utter inability of some people and politicians to acknowledge any shared experience with the people asking for sanctuary on this rich continent.

It is the British politicians speaking of ‘swarms’ and ‘marauders’. This is the language of plague and pestilence, not human lives. At its worst it is the Hungarian and Slovakian leaders speaking about the dilution of Christian values, and refusing refuge to Muslims.

In 1938, American and European leaders met in the French spa town of Evian to debate whether to offer sanctuary to the growing numbers of Jewish refugees. Politician after politician took to the podium and spoke about high unemployment and economic hardship, and nothing was done. The next year, W.H. Auden wrote his Refugee Blues: ‘Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees; They had no politicians and sang at their ease; They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race’. So much time has passed, yet how little we have learnt.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson has worked as a foreign correspondent for 13 years, reporting from three continents for the international media. Her first book Cast Away – The Shame on Europe’s Doorstep about migration into the EU will be published in 2016.

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