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Four Myths about the European Refugee Crisis (And Why You Need to Know the Reality)


This is a guest post by Dr. Adam Luedtke, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York – Queensborough Community College. He received his Ph.D. from University of Washington, and has held academic positions at Princeton University, Washington State University and the University of Utah. He has written numerous books and articles on the politics of global migration.

News reports about the EU refugee crisis have been misleading at best, and have potentially (in an unfortunate guise of well-intentioned awareness and concern) made the situation even worse for the refugees. While the headlines have outlasted the media’s usual attention span, they will inevitably fade, but the plight of 60 million refugees will not. For those wishing to do more than post solemn declarations of concern on social media, there are some critical facts to know–facts being obscured by how the media talks about the crisis. The first step to helping more refugees, in a more effective way, is to correct misperceptions about: 1) who the refugees are–that is, who makes it out (and why), versus who remains in conflict regions; and 2) how governments can or should act to alleviate the problem. As powerful as headlines are for sparking concern, people remain wholly misguided about the origins, manifestations and optimal solutions to the problem. The first step to moving beyond this ignorance is to consider the problem systematically, and debunk the most common media myths that obscure such understanding.

Myth: Europe is facing its largest refugee crisis since World War Two.
Example: “Even now, with the biggest refugee crisis since WWII… the E.U. doesn’t seem to be conscious of its magnitude.”

Today’s crisis is horrible, but the early 1990s saw more refugees than now, and the crisis was more acute. In 1992, on the heels of communism’s collapse and turmoil in Eastern Europe (including genocide in former Yugoslavia), there were 670,000 asylum applications to (the 15) EU countries. Among other things, headlines detailed regular Neo-Nazi firebombings of shelters in Germany. So, the belief that we are in the largest post-WW2 refugee crisis is simply wrong. Last year, 626,000 people (44,000 fewer than 1992) applied to all (now 28) EU countries. The first quarter of 2015 shows this year may pass 1992’s total of 670,000. However, even if this happens, the period 1992-1997 will still have seen a larger number than 2010-2015 (and today’s total is spread over double the countries).[2] Our media feed perceptions of an unprecedented crisis, shocking us with graphic images and a steady stream of detail about the misery. It is fortunate that this raises awareness and prompts desire for action. But incorrect information undermines the cause of helping refugees. The sudden burst of alarm–and the well-intentioned concern that results–obscures important facts, such as who makes it to Europe, and who is left behind.

Myth: The poorest and most desperate arrive at Europe’s doorstep.
Example: “Most migrants who live illegally in the European Union fly to the 28-nation bloc on valid visas. But for the poorest and most desperate travelers… the journey often takes months by sea or land, with payments to traffick[ers].”

Reality: The new arrivals have suffered greatly, but their poorest and most desperate compatriots never make it out of the region. Only those with resources can afford the high fees charged by human smugglers. Because the burden of travel is usually placed on refugees themselves, the poorest and least-equipped are trapped in their home countries or make it to neighboring countries at best, which are often underdeveloped and face grave sociopolitical problems themselves. 1.8 million Syrian refugees have been admitted to Turkey, with Lebanon taking 1.2 million and Jordan 600,000. The world was captivated by images of little Aylan Kurdi’s body, after his family attempted sea passage. It was only because his aunt in Canada gave the family thousands of dollars that they were they able to pay the human smugglers who facilitated that journey from Turkey. Turkey now shelters more refugees than any other country in the world, and just four countries (Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iran) host 36% of global refugees. The most deserving refugees are ignored by the logic of this system. If this is true, then who makes it to safe haven in the West?  The greater skills and resources of the “successful” refugees can benefit host countries, while admitting them in the comparatively small numbers they represent alleviates the political pressures from the headlines. But haven’t countries now stepped up their efforts?

Credit: European Union

Myth: Rich countries are finally taking in their fair share of refugees.
Example: “Why are the Germans being so nice? Angela Merkel has come out in favor of giving the refugees a big welcome. Being nice to refugees… helps dispel the ‘ugly German’ image. Angela Merkel has no difficulty in appreciating… human rights.”

Reality: Germany likes people to think it’s helping, but overall, rich countries admit few refugees, and the recent increases (though welcome) are a drop in the bucket. Germany does host the world’s eighth highest refugee population, but their refugee-to-native ratio is about 40 times less than Jordan’s. In the U.S., total admissions have dropped to under 70,000 from a 1990 peak of 122,000. Indeed, developing nations now host 86% of the global refugee population, and 25% of all refugees reside in the world’s “Least Developed” countries. This unbalanced settlement of refugees reveals the global system’s disproportionality. Refugee camps closer to the country of origin allow for more refugees to be helped. But the costs are much higher to resettle refugees in the West. This is why rich countries back a system which secludes refugees in temporary encampments, where they can be organized and managed by NGOs, who help shift focus and responsibility away from politicians. As analyst Robert Gorman notes, “Although the UNHCR is the institutional focal point of refugee protection, individual governments are the ones who must take up the cause.” So how could individual governments have handled this crisis better?

Myth: We could have avoided the crisis if states coordinated better.
Example: “Crisis… could have been avoided had refugees been able to travel normally, or make applications for asylum at embassies.”

Reality: Even if rich countries were willing to host every single refugee out there, it would be logistically impossible. Extra efforts should therefore be concentrated on the conflict region. While the option of asylum for refugees who reach Western shores is critically important, it is “hopelessly inadequate” as a solution to refugee crises. The causes of refugee flight are complex, and require a multi-faceted approach, including diplomacy and conflict resolution. To Oxford’s Matthew Gibney, even if “democratic states were to satisfy all of humanitarianism’s requirements, the claims of many of the world’s refugees to a safe place of residence would still go unmet.” Obviously, refugees arriving on the Western doorstep cannot be turned away. But in weighing the costs, benefits and ethics of refugee policy, we must acknowledge the relatively privileged status of the few refugees who have the means to make the journey, versus the dire needs of far larger populations near the conflict. There are no easy answers to their plight, but the inevitable search for answers must begin with correct facts. Otherwise, headlines will shock and sadden, without prompting effective action.

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