DURING the general election campaign attention finally began to focus on the crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean. For many months desperate people had been taking their lives in their hands, or worse still putting their lives in the hands of criminal traffickers, to try and reach safety in Europe. Thousands had died making the journey in 2014, and as the crisis escalated thousands more died in the first few months of 2015 alone.

Depressingly, much of the public debate on the issue ignored the basic humanity of the people involved, the causes of their peril and the need for compassion in our response. Instead the call for action by European governments was largely limited to security. Allegedly moderate voices called for military action to destroy the boats, and at the extremes of public debate the victims of this crisis were described as “cockroaches” by those explicitly saying they should be left to drown.

Now Europe once again appears willing to stand by and watch as a humanitarian crisis takes place, this time in the north of the continent, as people risk their lives to cross the Channel and reach the UK. Once again the focus is on “keeping our borders secure”. Once again the reasons why people flee war and persecution are ignored. Once again the scale of the problem is misrepresented. And once again the most toxic language is deployed to dehumanise the people at risk and to undermine the human instinct for compassion.

Some perspective is needed. Around the world some 50 million people are currently refugees. It’s hard to put a precise figure on others fleeing war, poverty and persecution but who aren’t counted in that figure. UN data suggests it is tens of millions more, including people displaced within their own countries and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In contrast, the total number of asylum applications across the EU last year was about 600,000. That’s a fraction of one per cent of those in need.

Within the EU, Germany receives vastly more asylum applications than Britain. Indeed the UK isn’t even close to the top of the table – even Sweden with a fraction of the UK’s population receives nearly twice as many applications for asylum. In terms of granting refugee status, we’re also way below the European average, with countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands doing far more than their share to accommodate those in need of asylum.

Yet hearing much of the rhetoric on this issue, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the reverse was true. It’s also hard to find much analysis which gets to grips with the causes of the problem. Our record of military intervention and economic exploitation, not just stretching back to the history of the Empire but including actions still taking place, is inextricably linked to the causes of human migration. As well as war, poverty, religious and political oppression, environmental destruction and resource pressures are adding to the problem, and these factors are only expected to increase through this century.

It’s also all too common that this issue is presented not as a problem for the people involved – the people whose lives are at risk – but rather as a problem for us. The simple truth which should underpin our response to this crisis is that to provide safety and security to those who need it is a privilege, not a burden. We’re the lucky ones – the ones who are asked for help, not the ones making unsafe, desperate journeys to ask for it. It’s those who flee who bear the burden, and there but for fortune any of us might go.

I find it impossible to accept that a continent of over 500 million people cannot find a way to share this responsibility, and provide adequate safety for the basic wellbeing of desperate people, while asylum claims and immigration applications are properly and respectfully dealt with.

Even within the Scottish media, which is generally much better in its treatment of this issue than some UK publications, I have seen more concern expressed about the inconvenience of delayed holidays, and the value of perishable goods sitting in lorries and containers, than I have seen about the human needs of the people we’re failing to protect. To care more about the economic loss that arises from a temporary constraint on the flow of cross-border trade than we do about the loss of life that is taking place within Europe, is nothing short of an obscenity.

If our response is led only by security and self interest, to the exclusion of empathy and compassion, then we do not deserve the privileged position we enjoy. Europe is supposed to have a concept of indivisible and universal human rights at its heart. It’s time to behave as though we meant it.