Img credit: The Independent
As the on-the-clock reporting of the refugee crisis in Europe becomes more intense, so does the cleft between opinions among Europeans, with those welcoming refugees to EU member states at one end of the pole, and those demanding they stop coming at the other.
And of course, with the safe haven the Internet has to offer, no one is afraid of being as blunt as possible about their opinions and even present them as facts. As such, I keep stumbling upon the same myths about the refugee crisis, which many have started to take at face value.
So here are what I think are some of the gravest misconceived statements about the current crisis and my attempt at clearing them up.
- “They are migrants, not refugees”.
Img credit: Al Jazeera
First of all, there is a fundamental problem when it comes to using the term ‘migrant’ to refer to what is in actual fact a refugee.
The word ‘migrant’ is infused with choice – the choice to leave one’s city or country for work, study, or better living conditions is something which makes a large number of us migrants. A ‘refugee’, on the other hand, is determined by a lack of choice – dire circumstances of war, oppression, or disaster, which forces someone out of their place of residence.
While some news outlets like Al Jazeera have consciously dropped the term ‘migrant’ to describe the current plight of those leaving their homes behind, others like the BBC still employ the term to remain more neutral in their stance.
The reason why the BBC is criticised for sticking to the word ‘migrant’ when describing the current crisis is indeed because it subtly posits that these refugees have a choice when they risk their lives cross over to Europe. This kind of rhetoric is counterproductive when it comes to the defence of refugees’ rights, and needs to be dismantled. And that is also part of the reason why people continue asking why these refugees do not take up residence in neighbouring Arab countries instead of coming to Europe.
- “Arab migrants should go to Muslim countries where they’d fit in more, instead of coming to Europe”.
Img credit: UNHCR
The short rebuttal to this is that they do, in fact, go to neighbouring Muslim majority countries, and they do so in large numbers.
If we are talking about refugees in general, the four countries which act as host to the largest number of refugees in the world; Pakistan, Jordan, Syria and Iran, are indeed, Muslim majority countries, whose total number of recorded refugee populations stands at around 20 million. This overshadows by a milestone the 1.5 million total refugee populations currently registered in all 28 EU member states.
With regard to Syrian refugees in particular, of the 12 million who are currently displaced, approximately 8 million are internal refugees and 4 million have entered neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. That leaves only about a quarter of a million Syrians who have made it into the EU, which means less than 2 per cent of the total Syrian refugee population.
If these figures prove anything, it is that refugees do tend to choose the closest, safest, and arguably, culturally ‘similar’ countries to settle down in, though of course these figures don’t make it into the news as much.
Some commentators have mentioned other Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, UAE or Oman as potential ‘peaceful’ destinations for refugees as well. The problem here is that these countries, as non-signatories of the international convention on refugee rights, do not grant asylum or refugee status.
Another thing to keep in mind when talking about ‘similar cultures’ is that culture is not singularly defined in terms of just religion, especially one whose distinct interpretations has become the source of so much tension and conflict in the Middle East. Divisive aspects still prevail among and between Arab countries, not least religious disparities, which often combine with political and ethnic divisions making it more difficult for refugees to go to Gulf States, despite our outsider and largely inaccurate perception of a ‘similar culture’.
Other reasons might be purely tactical. It is much easier for refugees from Syria to reach Turkey or Greece by sea, than it would be to reach Oman or the UAE, for example.
- “Refugees should not get to pick and choose where to stay. They should just apply for asylum in their country of entry, as decreed by the Dublin Convention”.
Again, they do. But understandably, it is irrational to expect only a few countries with limited resources to take on all the burden of providing for thousands of people. As such, the Dublin convention is currently under revision, and some member states like Germany have outright suspended this regulation in an attempt to grant asylum to more refugee populations.
A refugee holding Chancellor Merkel’s picture upon arrival at Munich. Img credit: AFP.
From the refugees’ perspective, it is also understandable for them to try to go to a country where they are more likely to get a positive response in their petition for asylum, as it is to go to one with a more thriving economy where they would be more likely to work and provide fairly for themselves and their families, rather than further burden that country’s unemployment benefits.
- “These refugees were sent here by Daesh to disseminate Islamic doctrine in Europe”.
This one is so ridiculous that I am tempted to just skip it. But I’ll say one thing – how widespread and deeply ingrained has anti-Muslim propaganda become for some people to actually believe that refugees risk their own lives and that of their children to set out to Europe on some kind of Islamic crusade?
- “The only way to eliminate the current refugee crisis is to eliminate Daesh”.
Wrong. Daesh is only part of the problem, and much more a result of a deeper rooted conflict than a direct cause of it. Let us not forget the pro-democracy uprisings which started four years ago, were explicitly against Assad’s regime. At that time, Daesh had no significant presence in Syria at all, but people were still being displaced by the thousands. Things became more complicated when Daesh seized turf in Syria, of course, but they did so as well when the US started its air strikes against Daesh, with civilian areas serving as occasional collateral damage.
To go to the actual root of the current conflict would mean to acknowledge the fragility of a nation like Syria, which has, since the end of a series of foreign occupations, only emerged a few decades ago under the dictatorship of the Assad family. Current borders drawn by former colonialists and the meshing together of different ethnic and religious groups continue to pose a problem resulting in conflict.
I know people get edgy about bringing up colonialism over and over again, but the fact of the matter is, it has left an on-going impact, which cannot be overlooked when talking about ‘solutions’ to conflicts in the Middle East.
Image retrieved from AsiaNews.it
- “The media’s focus has shifted entirely onto the refugees in Europe, undermining the significance of war in the Middle East and refugees elsewhere”.
Refugee Camp in Iraq, 2013. Credit: Getty images.
This one is not a misconception. But it should come as no surprise as far the media goes.
In news reporting in general, there is a clear conflict of interest when it comes to selling a story and being objective. To have a story at all, one needs certain elements – a plot, for starters, then a hero, a victim, and a villain.
In the refugee crisis we seem to have it all. The plot revolves around the refugees’ plight to reach safe land in Europe, and plot twist, the challenges they continue to face upon their arrival.
The villain for some is the Hungarian government – the whole crisis began in the media with the latter’s construction of a wall to keep refugees out and then intensified with their closing of train stations to impede refugees’ quest for asylum in other EU countries.
We have heroes in the European people who are at odds with their governments and are going out to help the refugees.
And unfortunately, now we even have a face for the victims as tragic images of Aylan, the drowned toddler, circulate the web demanding that people take a stand against the current situation.
But the truth is, this refugee crisis is much more dated than the news would have us believe. For the media though, it seemed only to became a crisis worthy of on-the-clock reporting when all the elements of the story fell into place, and since we just got our villain recently, that seems to be now.
And finally, why does Western media not engage as deeply with the war and its casualties as it does with the refugee crisis in Europe? Because we only become interested in putting a face to a news story when it concerns Europe or the US in some way. If it does not, it is reduced to mere statistics.