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What makes us care, and how do we act?

Jennifer Allsopp
19 June 2008

Rosemary and Zrinka have raised some extremely important questions - not only ‘who cares for who', but what makes us care, and how we choose to express it. I would like to try and shed some light on the second two questions in light of my experience campaigning on asylum issues.

It seems to be a question of proximity, both in terms of coming into contact with the issues and our ability to act. People are more willing to deal with refugee and asylum issues when it is a question of isolated acts of human kindness; we find it easier to perceive an asylum seeker as a charity case than a dignified human being with ‘political baggage'. The same difficulty is encountered with many other social issues, especially homelessness: however complicated the problem is, a small donation is a concrete step towards a simple (and deserving) end, whilst interacting with the system is an up-hill struggle which rarely boasts such direct rewards.

This is one reason why the issue of destitution moves people in a way that matters like detention and access to legal aid do not, and why in March this year around 140 citizens were prepared to sleep out in Oxford town centre protesting against the government's policy of using destitution as a tool against refused asylum seekers, whilst the turnout to Campsfield demonstrations remains erratic and most people ignore the centre's presence. For whilst we can all sympathise with the proximate issue of destitution, the compassion stops once individuals are put behind bars. These create a boundary of fear and cultivate a climate of us and them which successfully placates the conscience of even the most good-hearted citizen. And this distance seems to be just what the government wants.

The ‘good bystander in denial' is prepared to intervene when it is a question of charity or when the human rights abuse is happening on our doorstep. Yet in detention centres and law courts questions of justice are consistently ignored as they are either passively accepted as necessary security measures, seen as part of an abstract political system which we mere voters are unable to change, or because the faceless individuals caught-up in the process are subconsciously perceived as criminals. Few of us are willing, (or simply do not have the time), to step back and see the overall picture. If we did so, perhaps we would see what Zrinka highlights, our moral obligation to asylum seekers, and show more interest in less proximate issues like detention and legal aid.

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