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Day 240, Year of #Mygration: Theresa and me

Photo of Patrick Page speaking at an OU event in June 2018

Today's blog is written by Patrick Page, a Senior Caseworker at Duncan Lewis. We were delighted to have Patrick speak at an Open University event in June as part of Refugee Week.

I’m dreaming. It’s one of those crisp and golden mornings offered by autumn, and I’m sitting on a low wall, watching the sea steadily coming towards me. Sitting on the wall next to me, in fact, resting her legs along the wall, is our Prime Minister. Her bare feet are on my lap, and I’m holding them. She asks me who I’m voting for, (she’s on a ‘walkabout’). She doesn’t like my answer and sighs, exhausted. Her exhaustion is also mine. ‘I should probably let you get to work’ she says, before leaving me. I watch her as she treads her way along the empty beach, her shoes dangling from her left hand.

Theresa May. The progenitor and architect of the ‘really hostile environment’ - who sent vans around London saying ‘Go Home’, who brought human rights into disrepute by falsely claiming that the Home Office had not been able to deport a man because he had a cat. Theresa May, who has derided human rights lawyers for ‘haranguing and harassing’, who said that we should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, who called me a ‘citizen of nowhere.’ First as Home Secretary and now as Prime Minister, May’s aggressive and xenophobic policies and practices have caused untold and totally avoidable suffering.

And yet…and yet, when I woke up (yes, late for work), and saw Theresa’s name in the news, I was shocked to find that I felt her loneliness. There was a tenderness where there had previously been only hate. And I felt light as if a burden had been lifted from me. Hatred is heavy.

This is the power of empathy, otherwise known as ‘stepping into someone else’s shoes’. Of course, I will continue to do my best to fight against and expose the horrors of the hostile environment, but I can’t hate Theresa; I’ve held her feet.   

The dream made me wonder, ‘what if Theresa May and Home Office mandarins felt this kind of empathy towards those now targeted by the hostile environment?’

An empathy desert                   

But there is no empathy in May’s hostile environment. Empathy would bring it down.

The absence of empathy characterises all elements of the UK’s immigration control system. There can be no empathy where, when you arrest a person, it is called ‘Direct Capture’ of a ‘Subject’, or an ‘illegal’. There can be no empathy when a pregnant woman being ’transferred’ to a detention centre is denied a rest stop, forced to urinate in a bag in the back of the van or to be sick into her shoes. There is no empathy in detention centres, where officers have been filmed strangling those in their ‘care’. There is no empathy in a system that forcibly, and with no notice, sends women and men back to the countries from which they fled for their lives.  

Those involved in enforcing the hostile environment make no pretence at empathy. In the BBC Panorama documentary that exposed the abuse of detained men at Brook House IRC, an officer is caught describing a man who has attempted to commit suicide as an ‘attention seeking little prick… if he dies, he dies.’ In a similar exposé by Channel 4 a few years earlier, at the women-only Yarl’s Wood, an officer suggests that they should ‘let them slash their wrists ... It’s attention-seeking.’ The same programme revealed staff calling the detained women ‘animals’ and ‘beasties.’

Perhaps detention centre staff feel that it makes their job easier if they think of their charges more as animals than humans. Or not even animate: the senior civil servant Stephen Shaw was told ‘somewhat ruefully’ by a Home Office caseworker that:

‘her job had been easier before the visit as it had been possible to consider detainees just as case files rather than as people.’

The Home Office has not taken Shaw up in his recommendation that all caseworkers who make decisions resulting in detention should meet the detainees face-to-face, and should spend time on secondment or training in detention centres so that:

‘they understand more about the operational realities of detention and the impact their decisions have upon detainees.’

Presumably, creating the space for empathy might create a dangerous reluctance on the part of caseworkers to make decisions that will cause suffering, if they are going to feel it too.

Empathy is a threat.


Sympathy won’t do. To feel pity for someone, feeling sorry for their suffering, doesn’t prevent you causing them suffering. Ultimately, it is still just their suffering, not your suffering.  Only empathy, which in Greek means feeling in someone, feeling their suffering as they do, has the power to radically change behaviour.

In fact, even empathy doesn’t quite cut it. Despite drawing from ancient Greek en (in) and pathy (suffer/feel), ‘empathy’ is actually a poor and relatively recent (early 20th C) translation of the German ‘Einfühlung’, which literally means ‘feeling into’.

The difference between inand ‘intois subtle but crucial. ‘In’ is static, immobile, while ‘into’ is kinetic and mobile; a progressive and continuous effort.

When we use ‘empathy’ in context, we shift even further away from this original, active, meaning because we use the preposition with(I empathise with someone), rather than in or into. As a result, ‘empathy’ becomes, in practice, a synonym for its less involved sibling: sympathy (sym from sun in Greek, ‘with’).

For a radical change we need empathy in the raw sense of Einfühlung. The system of the hostile environment would collapse if those operating it were actively feeling the suffering of those targeted.

How to grow empathy

To avoid getting semantically tangled up, let’s say empathy incorporates the active element of the original German term.

How can we foster empathy in the world of immigration control?

1. Time & Space

First, you need, like a campfire, time and space. Both these elements are clearly lacking in the immigration control system. Home Office caseworkers have spoken out about not having the time or resources to properly look at individual cases properly, expected to make five decisions to grant or refuse asylum seekers a week, with a letter between 5,000 and 17,000 words long. This is clearly unreasonable, and whistle-blowers have expressed their concerns that they are ‘failing people in their darkest hour’. 

2. Engagement

Second, you need tangible engagement. As we have seen, the interaction between the Home Office and those affected by its decisions is severely restricted. Very few of our asylum-seeking clients are able to get through to their Home Office ‘case-owner’ on the telephone, and almost none will meet them in person. One of our clients has described the Home Office as ‘The Darkness… You can’t touch them, you can’t see them, you can’t speak to them.’

3. Recognisability and relatability

Recognisability and relatability are crucial. To be able to empathise, to be able to step into their shoes, it needs to be, to some extent, possible for you to imagine being in their shoes. This is arguably the greatest obstacle to growing empathy among those in this field, from both the operators of the hostile environment and those fight the system.

The problem with vulnerability

Expositions of the migrant experience, such as BBC’s Exodus and the independent film Revenir , expose some of the horrors of the refugee experience. Most of those watching these in the cinema or from the comfort of their own homes, however, simply cannot imagine themselves in such a scenario. As a result, such documentaries and films can actually distance many of the audience from those whose perspectives are being presented.

A focus on extreme vulnerability may shock, but it does not help generate empathy. It is, of course, not a zero-sum game. These films are vital articulations and expositions of the migrant experience; they expose the needless suffering that results from draconian restrictions on human movement. But more effort also needs to be put into making those targeted by the hostile environment recognisable and relatable. Shakespeare’s Shylock grasps this when he defends himself by reference to shared humanity:

‘Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases…If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?’

When those affected are made relatable, the public reaction is massive, as we saw with the Windrush scandal. A member of the Windrush Generation was not presented as an exotic other, but someone who might live next door to you. The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman focused on individual people with problems within the experiential world of readers, like ‘Albert Thompson’, who was being refused potentially life-saving cancer treatment.  

We can’t fully understand

There are limits, of course, to the extent to which most people can empathise with those being targeted by the hostile environment. If you haven’t experienced civil war, famine, a traumatic journey, mistreatment at the hands of the Home Office, or persecution because of your sexual orientation, race, religion or political opinion, you cannot glibly say ‘Hmm, I understand’, or ‘yeah, I can imagine’.

But we can try. We can say that we are actively ‘feeling into’, working on it, Einfühlung. Without this kind of empathy the hostile environment, under whatever bogus re-branding it has been given, will remain firmly in place, considered a valuable and morally acceptable vote-winner. 

Perhaps we can glean some hope from the Windrush scandal, which precipitated the resignation of a Home Secretary, brought scrutiny to elements of the hostile environment and forced promises from the Home Office to both ditch immigration targets and to initiate a drive on dignity in detention. And I still feel a strange new tenderness to Theresa May. I can still feel her tired feet. Let’s give empathy a chance.

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