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.
From Charlotte McDonald-Gibson in Granta.