HUFFINGTON POST
09/16/2015 11:25 am ET Updated Jan 03, 2017

5 Major Myths Of Europe's Refugee And Migrant Crisis Debunked

It's time to put these falsehoods to rest.
Dimitris Michalakis / Reuters

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled to Europe from repressive and conflict-laden countries this year in the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The sudden influx has sparked an urgent discussion among the European Union nations over what response is necessary to mitigate the crisis. While incredible displays of generosity and solidarity have come out of that debate, the conversation has also included talking points and narratives that are more rooted in myth than fact.  

Many of these false claims about the refugee and migrant crisis have been repeated ad nauseam in the media and online comment sections, as well as by prominent politicians in Europe and the United States. The propagation of these myths not only distorts the reality of the crisis and those caught up in it, but can also affect how states and populations move to help those in need.

"A lot of politics is relatively fact-free in this arena, and we need to much better understand what drives migration before we can form the right policies," migration expert Hein de Haas told The WorldPost in an interview on the subject last month.

The WorldPost took a look at five of the major myths circulating around the refugee and migrant crisis.

A red sun is seen over a dinghy overcrowded with Syrian refugees drifting in the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece after i
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
A red sun is seen over a dinghy overcrowded with Syrian refugees drifting in the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece after its motor broke down off the Greek island of Kos, August 11, 2015.

Myth #1: The Majority Of People Are Economic Migrants

There's a prominent claim among immigration opponents that the majority of people who are entering Europe through irregular means during this crisis are not refugees, but rather economic migrants searching for economic opportunities. 

Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban has claimed that economic migrants constitute the "overwhelming majority" of those who are seeking to enter the bloc, while characterizing the current crisis as a "rebellion by illegal migrants." Orban's sentiment was echoed by other hardline conservative politicians, including Britain's Nigel Farage and Slovakia's Robert Fico.

Yet the idea that the majority of those arriving in the EU -- 95 percent by Fico's calculation -- are economic migrants is not borne out by reality. While there is no definitive proof of the background and origin of every migrant and refugee entering Europe, UNHCR estimates that just over 50 percent of the people who have arrived to Europe by sea so far in 2015 are from Syria, a country ravaged by civil war where bombings and violence are a daily threat

Some of the other prevalent nationalities arriving in Europe are from similarly war-torn states, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Many others are fleeing repression and sometimes forced conscription under regimes in Eritrea and Gambia.

In an analysis of migrant and refugee arrivals, The Economist estimates that 75 percent of people who take irregular sea routes to Europe are from countries whose citizens are usually granted EU protection in some form.

Refugees in the Softex refugee camp, outskirts of Thessaloniki, Greece, on 31 December 2016.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Refugees in the Softex refugee camp, outskirts of Thessaloniki, Greece, on 31 December 2016.

Myth #2: Migrants And Refugees Can Just Stay In Turkey

Another myth related to the claim that most people reaching Europe are economic migrants is the contention that refugees, especially Syrians, could simply stay in neighboring countries. Some say that when these people choose to travel to Europe, they don't do it out of fear -- but rather a desire to live off a welfare state.

"Turkey is a safe country. Stay there. It's risky to come," Hungary's Orban said earlier this month

But opponents miss the legal status of refugees in Turkey and neighboring states, as well as the deteriorating humanitarian conditions that now characterize living there. 

Turkey, which has taken in 1.9 million Syrians, does not actually grant Syrians living there refugee status as agreed upon in the Geneva Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Turkey didn't sign on to one part of the agreement, and therefore isn't fully bound by it.

Instead, Ankara offers Syrian refugees temporary protection with the idea that they will one day leave. Additionally, conditions for refugees in Turkey have steadily deteroriated as humanitarian aid has dwindled, tensions with local populations have risen and camps have become overpacked

Refugees in Lebanon are struggling to live in dire conditions, such as the storm-damaged camp seen here.
Getty Images/Ibrahim Chalhoub
Refugees in Lebanon are struggling to live in dire conditions, such as the storm-damaged camp seen here.

In Lebanon, Syrians now make up one-fifth of the population. Over half of these more than 1.1 million refugees live in insecure dwellings, according the United Nations Refugee Agency

Conditions in Jordan, which has over 600,000 Syrian refugees, are similarly dire. Two-thirds of the Syrian refugee population there lives in poverty, according to the U.N., while 1-in-6 live in extreme poverty.

Barriers preventing legal work in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey mean that refugees are often forced into an informal economy where they lack rights or a guaranteed minimum wage.

The World Food Program has been providing food aid to Syrian refugees, but a lack of funding has forced sizable cuts. Now, those who do receive aid from the group only get around 50 cents a day to feed themselves, Abeer Etefa from U.N.'s World Food Program for the Middle East and North Africa region told NPR.

"After years in exile, refugees' savings are long depleted and growing numbers are resorting to begging, survival sex and child labour. Middle-class families with children are barely surviving on the streets," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres stated in March about refugees in Syria's neighboring countries. 

A Polish policeman patrols at the Hungary and Serbia border fence near the village of Asotthalom, Hungary, October 2, 2016.
Laszlo Balogh / Reuters
A Polish policeman patrols at the Hungary and Serbia border fence near the village of Asotthalom, Hungary, October 2, 2016.

Myth #3: They Don't Look Like They Need Help

Another criticism levied by anti-immigrant groups is that many people entering Europe have smartphones, are wearing expensive clothing or generally appear to be in good health.

The perverse notion that a person doesn't look destitute or sickly enough to be granted asylum contains a fundamental lack of understanding about what being a refugee means. The people heading to Europe come from diverse backgrounds, including middle-class lives or wealthy and educated families, but they have been forced to flee due to horrific conflict.

As The Washington Post notes, a 2013 study of Syrian refugees in Lebanon found around half were skilled or semi-skilled workers. 

Syria is also a country where there are between 75 and 87 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people, Canada's CBC reports

Smartphones also provide a vital means of communication and navigation along the routes to Europe. Refugees and migrants use these devices for GPS, as well as to contact family members and other travelers. They can also call or message for help from authorities should trouble arise on the dangerous journey. 

Myth #4: Islamic State Militants Are Posing As Refugees

One photo purports to show an Islamic State fighter holding a rifle in Syria earlier this year, then smiling in a separate image as he enters Europe wearing a T-shirt that says "thank you." Another image claims to show refugees holding an Islamic State flag and attacking German police.

In actuality, both photos don't really show anything close to what people circulating the images online claim. 

The first before-and-after image is that of a man profiled by the Associated Press who was a Free Syrian Army commander before fleeing the conflict. Now, he hopes to bring his family to the Netherlands. The flag photo is from years ago and unrelated to refugees, or possibly even the Islamic State.

The photos' circulation is representative of a fear expressed by European officials and media outlets that Islamic State militants may be hiding among migrant groups in order to sneak into Europe and commit terror attacks. An unnamed Islamic State operative also told Buzzfeed in January that he aided in smuggling militants into Europe.

However, as things stand now, there is little to confirm these claims. Europe's border control agency stated that there was no concrete evidence to support the idea that Islamic State militants are among migrants, and experts say such plans sound specious.

"I don't see the need for ISIS to embark on such a convoluted scheme to carry out attacks or be a threat in the West,"  Reinoud Leenders, associate professor in international relations and Middle East studies at King's College London, told The Los Angeles Times. After all, many members of the Islamic State are foreign fighters who already possess European citizenship, Leenders pointed out.

The response to this concern, aid groups told the LA Times, is not to shut out migrants and create increased irregular migration that is hard to document. Rather, they said, countries should create safe, legal and documented channels to review arrivals.

Hungarian border police arrive at the transit camp on the Macedonia-Greece border near Gevgelija, to help Macedonian authorit
Ognen Teofilovski / Reuters
Hungarian border police arrive at the transit camp on the Macedonia-Greece border near Gevgelija, to help Macedonian authorities manage the flow of migrants January 6, 2016.

Myth #5: Refugees And Migrants Will Ruin Economies 

Beyond security and humanitarian criticisms, a prominent complaint from the anti-immigration camp is that taking in refugees is a tremendous economic cost. These newcomers, they say, will take away jobs from the native population and create poverty.

This nativist argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, experts say, and some economists argue that if handled correctly, the influx of refugees could actually have a positive effect on the economy. 

Studies across a number of countries show that when there is an influx of refugees into a population, it produces long-term positive or neutral effect on the nation’s economy, The Washington Post reports. Migration expert Hein de Haas also told The WorldPost that in general, migration has a relatively small ― rather than radical or negative ― effect on economies. 

“It would be outrageous to suggest that migration is either the cause of structural unemployment, which is one example, or the precariousness of labor,” de Haas said.

As The Washington Post explains, states will have to spend heavily at first to receive the number of refugees that are currently arriving. But in the long-term, this should be seen as a potentially lucrative investment.

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