Refugees clamber through barbed wire on their way from Serbia to Hungary.
 Refugees clamber through barbed wire on their way from Serbia to Hungary. Photograph: Darko Bandic/AP

They’re not people: nobody would tolerate hearing about the drowning of human beings over and over again. At best they are bleak but intangible statistics, the object of a bit of tutting before mundane everyday life takes over. For others, they are an unwanted and uninvited swarm that Fortress Europe must keep out: full of undeserving would-be leeches who have no place in the west. In the hierarchy of death, anyone labelled “migrant” must take their place somewhere near the bottom. It is a dehumanised word: for all too many people, it is somewhere down with “petty criminal”, and who mourns petty criminals?

As the news of up to 200 dead refugees, drowned off the coast of Libya, filters fleetingly into news coverage, the only guarantee is that more will drown. And with news of more than 70 refugees found dead in a truck in Austria – to try to imagine their last living moments triggers a horrible feeling in the pit of the stomach – we know that more bodies will be found in more trucks. Those of us who want more sympathetic treatment of people fleeing desperate situations have failed to win over public opinion, and the cost of that is death.

For those who believe that hostility to human beings from other countries who lost the lottery of life is somehow hardwired into us, there is evidence to the contrary. Germany takes in around four times as many refugees as Britain does; and for every Syrian asylum seeker received by Britain, Germany gets 27. And despite German generosity comparing starkly with our own, half of Germans polled support letting in even more refugees.

This is a debate that cannot be won by statistics. We can tell people that those reaching Europe represent a tiny fraction of the world’s refugee population; that while developing countries housed 70% of refugees a decade or so ago, that has now leapt to 86%. Far smaller and poorer countries take in far more than us, such as Lebanon, with its population of around 4.5 million including 1.3 million Syrian refugees. But it won’t shift people’s attitudes. We have to do it with stories, humanising otherwise faceless refugees.

Other than a tiny proportion of sociopaths, our species is naturally empathetic. It is only when we strip the humanity from people – when we stop imagining them as being quite human like us – that our empathetic nature is eroded. That allows us either to accept the misery of others, or even to inflict it on them. Rightwing newspapers hunt down extreme and unsympathetic stories of refugees, and we fight back with statistics. Instead, we need to show the reality of refugees: their names, their faces, their ambitions and their fears, their loves, what they fled.

Yes, the solution to global human misery is not to extricate a tiny lucky number and parachute them into richer countries. We need the west to take responsibility for disaster zones it helped create, like Libya and Iraq. We should pressure our governments to do more to solve situations that compel human beings to flee. At home, communities with higher levels of both migrants and refugees should be given extra resources and support. But as long as there is misery, people will flee it, and a tiny proportion will come this far. If we want to help them, we need to change public attitudes by humanising refugees. If we fail, then more and more women, men and children will spend their last few hours drowning in seas or suffocating in lorries. It is as bleak as that.