We hear a great deal in the press about the growing refugee problem, particularly about those people displaced by political upheavals in Eastern Europe. At best this great human tragedy is addressed merely as a matter of worrying statistics. At worst and most often we are encouraged to see the refugees as a cunning, aggressive horde of locusts poised to swoop down and ravage our economy and culture.

With so much of the popular press following this line, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the subjects of such coverage are human beings; people who have suffered and lost their rightful place on this earth.

There are so many stories that paint all refugees as "bogus" and as people who want to rip-off our welfare system that one could be forgiven for thinking of them all as spongers. But I don't think most people really believe these arguments. They suit politicians because they can then dodge the difficult and expensive responsibility of looking after the many genuine cases.

They suit certain parts of the press because they can sell newspapers dominated by headlines that tap into base undercurrents of fear and xenophobia. But most of us know that many people do need and deserve our help and that it is wrong and cruel to relieve ourselves of any responsibility on the basis of hyped-up stories.

Let's deal with the "bogus" element swiftly and then concentrate on helping the worthy cases. I have met a number refugees through my involvement with the Medical Foundation. None of these asylum-seekers, who fled their homelands after experiencing the most awful human rights abuses, were after anything more than a chance to find a place of safety where they could begin to deal with the traumatic past and make some sense of an extremely confusing present.

Once they have the most basic of human needs - shelter and food - these survivors usually need to tell their story, to unload some of the trauma. These stories are often beyond imagination. They can be so shocking that one's intellectual faculties become so muddled that it is almost impossible to take in anything more than the words themselves. To realise that people can have suffered and lost so much and yet still manage to function at all is awe-inspiring.

People who have witnessed and suffered terrible things often appear different from the rest of us. Like anyone who has just been through a shock - a car crash perhaps - or who is grieving the death of a relative, refugees may seem detached, at a loss and poor at communication. Imagine being in such a state and having only a few words of the local language, meeting racist attitudes, being confused by the local culture and not being able to go home because your countrymen will likely kill you.

Refugees deal with all these nightmares. They are some of the greatest survivors we will ever meet. We should cherish their spirit, help them come to terms with their sense of defeat and help them acknowledge their triumph. Their determination offers us reassurance that although there are still - 50 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - many regimes routinely abusing human rights, good will outlast and defeat evil.

We must think about people as individuals and realise that anyone can be vulnerable. We must look beyond the hype dished out by press and politicians, keen to avoid accepting this country's responsibilities.

That odd-looking character sitting on the other side of the train, muttering to himself, might well have a story to tell that would shock and perhaps humble us. Likely too, that man's resource would bring us a greater understanding of the human condition. We should welcome him for what he can give us, and give him the chance of a future here that was stolen from him in his homeland.

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