What do you think when you hear the word refugee?

By Steve Atherton

Refugees were a regular feature in the news during the summer. The images were very striking: the stark contrast between the asylum-seekers and holidaymakers on the Greek islands; the queues of lorries in Kent; the desperate attempts to get into the Channel Tunnel at Calais.

The newspapers and the government are hostile to refugees, sometimes presenting them as though they were a swarm of ants trying to break into the kitchen and make the house uninhabitable. The ants are a threat. The refugees are a threat. The Prime Minister has appeared on television to assure us that the problem will soon be sorted by increased security and the refugees will be kept out whether by use of troops or by better fences. The Home Secretary has warned that our standard of living is under attack. More refugees means a lower standard of living.

While most newspapers largely share the same outrage as the government, television, on the other hand, sometimes takes a more sympathetic view. Some TV reporters, who have met the refugees, present them as desperate people who are fleeing intolerable situations, or as sad people who are living precariously on the edges of society. Actual contact and conversations with the refugees makes it easier for the reporters to begin to connect with them as fellow human beings. The reporters are not actually solving their problems but they have moved from outrage to sympathy and are beginning to break through the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Contact makes it much easier to be sympathetic, because once the stories have awoken empathy in us, our perception of the problem changes from the abstract to the personal. Abstract problems can be solved with the brain but personal problems affect our feelings. Personal problems involve our hearts.

The Government appeals to our self-interest: if our comfort or security is threatened it makes sense to protect ourselves. Why would anyone choose to be less well-off and to have a lower standard of living? Why would anyone choose to share their goods with the poor? Clearly, that attitude is not a Christian response. We are called to love one another – not to ‘pass by on the other side’ – and to have a special concern for the poor. This example is clear in the Gospels and in the lives of the saints. It is clear today in the response of many Christian organisations in our country. The Jesuit Refugee Service, Asylum Link Merseyside, the Catholic Worker and many others are committed to sharing their wealth with the poorest of the poor.

This acknowledgement that the world needs to be reshaped has been a call from the last three Popes. Recently Pope Francis said: "The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes 'a seedbed for collective selfish­ness'. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The empti­er a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are re­spected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs."

The difficult question that is becoming ever more real is how we should react as a nation to the presence of such gross inequality. How can we be so rich when others are so poor? Is it anything to do with me? What should I do?