Natasha Walter: There are limits to our sympathy

'Why, given all the grief that we seem capable of, have there been so few tears shed over previous victims of Afghanistan?'
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What a caring lot we are. We are reaching out in our hearts to those whose lives have been broken by violent fundamentalists. We are looking with new eyes at the evil-doers that hide out in Afghanistan, and shivering as we contemplate their destructive spirit. But it's intriguing to note that despite our great empathy for the victims of the attacks in America, other victims of these madmen get a very different response.

Many of those victims are way beyond our reach. But some are closer to home. They are the people who have managed to escape from a state controlled by lunatic fundamentalists, and who have made journeys against enormous odds into other countries.

Some of these people are physically near to us, but it seems that they are still out of the reach of our sympathy. Yesterday, David Blunkett took the opportunity not to express support for such people who might try to seek sanctuary with us, but to express a hard line against their efforts to get to Britain. Because while we might show our soft side to those affected by the horror in America, we must continue to show a stern face to other victims of fundamentalist terror who have the temerity to ask for our sympathy.

So Blunkett went to Dover to inspect complicated and expensive equipment that promises to make fortress Europe more impregnable than ever. This is the welcome we are preparing for desperate people from places like Afghanistan who make long, lonely journeys through the mountains of Iran and the seas of the Mediterranean. Thermal imaging equipment, acoustic listening devices and CCTV are being put into place at either end of the tunnel into Britain, simply to ensure that would-be refugees can be discovered and turned away.

And in case anyone might think it a coincidence that he chose to do this at a time when international events might lead to a fresh influx of refugees from Afghanistan, Blunkett made the connection clear. "The international climate means that this is no time for complacency," he said. "We simply can't take a flood of those being trafficked."

In many previous situations in which Western countries have contemplated war, they have also contemplated extending some sympathy to the refugees from enemy states – so, for instance, many Kosovans found sanctuary here once Nato and Serbia locked horns. But this time the mood towards refugees seems to be, well, just business as usual.

And that business is currently a heartless one. Do you remember the Tampa, the ship that, for weeks before the attacks on America, was circling the seas near Australia? It contained 433 people, most of them from Afghanistan. Now, of course, we are all shuddering at the idea that the kind of brutal madness that is fertilised by the Afghan regime might affect the lives of people like us. But when it only affected people like them – poor people, people who didn't speak English, people sitting hungry and dirty on board a crowded boat on the Indian Ocean, did we give a damn?

The fact that these are desperate people, people who, if we had been able to hear their stories, would have been able to tell us tales of suffering, of being bereaved, of losing parents and friends and children – all that simply went by the board. And even now that our feelings are so raw on behalf of some victims we are prepared to support them in war, we are not any more eager to listen to the tales of those refugees. Given Australia's intransigence, they have now been disembarked on the tiny island of Nauru, where crude shelters are being erected on a desolate wasteland to house them. Who knows how long they will spend in this limbo, unable to forge any kind of life for themselves despite all their struggles?

I'm not sure why, given all the grief that we seem capable of, there have been so few tears shed over previous victims of the violent culture of Afghanistan. A few months ago I remember listening to Jemima Khan talking on the radio about a visit to Jalozai, a refugee camp for Afghans within Pakistan. She was speaking about going to that swamp of human misery and meeting an eight-year-old girl queueing for food, who was carrying one of her younger siblings and holding another by the hand. Khan had asked why she was looking after the other children and received the reply that, since both her parents were dead, the little girl had to struggle not just for her own survival, but for that of the rest of her family too.

That is a story of human misery that must stir up tears in any of us who wept over the tales of American children going to bed on the night of 11 September without their father or their mother. But although we are so quick to extend our sympathy to some bereaved children, others seem to fall through our emotional radar.

The protestations of Western politicians that we are unable to cope with the current floods of asylum-seekers sound particularly hollow when you consider the situation of refugees from Afghanistan. Afghanistan produces more refugees than almost any other country in the world, but very few of them ever make their way over here. While Blunkett goes forth to erect barricades against the hordes, we should remember that although Western countries may receive a few thousand refugees, other, much poorer countries, take many multiples of those numbers. Britain receives about 100,000 asylum-seekers each year, of which about a quarter are legally allowed to remain. In contrast, last year Pakistan had to absorb 200,000 refugees from Afghanistan, and is now home to around two million Afghans.

The rhetoric of Western politicians, from David Blunkett to his Australian counterpart, Philip Ruddock, makes it clear that they would like the problem of Afghan refugees to continue to be firmly confined to the Middle East. But we do have responsibilities of our own to these people.

Some would say that is because we have historically had a hand in creating their troubles. After all, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and other fundamentalist fighters in the country were equipped, trained and protected for years by America and Britain. Others would say that this is because the new streams of refugees who are pouring out of Afghanistan, and being beaten back with plastic hoses at the Pakistani border, are fleeing now not just from the Taliban, but also from terror at the possibility of Western attacks. But even if we hadn't played any role in the circumstances that are leading them to flee, wouldn't we have a simple humanitarian obligation to respond to their need?

Tragically, the situation seems to be increasing xenophobia rather than sympathy. For much of the tabloid press, the fact that some immigrants are terrorist sympathisers has tarred the whole lot with the same brush. And out of this horrible climate has already come attacks on innocent refugees: one cab driver from Afghanistan was beaten up and left paralysed from the neck down after being attacked in London at the weekend.

It needn't be like that. If we believe, as I passionately do, that our societies are worth defending, let's make ours a civilisation to be proud of. David Blunkett is off today to a meeting of European interior ministers. Let's hope that once there, we don't just hear talk from him of floods and hordes and controls, but also of our sympathy and our duty to extend help to all victims of terror.

Millions of Afghans who have fled and are fleeing their country need protection and support. It would be good to see a tiny fraction of the international effort that is being spent talking of war spent on finding ways to secure peace and safety for them.