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Misconceptions around refugees are a threat to a tolerant society

Figures released by UN refugee agency make for grim reading. According to the UNHCR the number of displaced people worldwide is estimated at 65.6 million, of which 22.5 million are refugees. The agency stresses that these figures are unprecedented, and warns that we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.

The figures speak of a humanitarian catastrophe on a biblical proportion, especially in Syria where over 65 per cent of the population have been displaced. But should they be a cause for panic in the West?

Let's start with some basic facts: two-thirds of the world's 65.6 million that are displaced remain within the borders of their own countries. Currently Syria's neighbours – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt – are shouldering the responsibility by hosting 97 per cent of Syria's refugees. It's also the case that the international community, with its various refugee agencies and legions of NGO's are now better prepared to deal with the humanitarian problems than ever before. Let's also consider that in 2015 the number of refugees in the EU peaked at 1.26 million, which is less than two per cent of the global figure.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the number of refugees and migrants coming into Europe is in fact dropping. The UN migration agency reported that in 2017 the number of refugees arriving into Europe had dropped by half. For some European capitals that is the lowest in four years.

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A similar reverse in panic, however, does not appear to be the case; in fact it's been the opposite: nativism, which promotes the interest of "indigenous communities"- defined in narrow racist terms- against immigrants and anyone deemed "foreign" is gaining strength and challenging the universal ideals of the West. The stark reality is that the foundations of the house of Europe with a population of 741 million has shown signs of creaking politically and culturally in having to shoulder an additional 0.16 per cent of the continent's population.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is under intense pressure to tighten the country's refugee policies or risk the collapse of her coalition government. Across Europe there is growing appetite for a much harder line in tackling the refugee crises. Few world leaders, however, champion unkindness as a policy more than US President Donald Trump. This week, the man who wants to ban Muslims as a national policy, weighed into a European discussion and accused Merkel of allowing immigrants to "violently" change Germany's culture. Trump lashed out at the beleaguered chancellor even as he faced international outcry for separating children from migrant parents at the borders of the US.

Like much of Trump's assertions, his swipe at Merkel was based on false claims. "Crime in Germany is way up," he tweeted yesterday. "Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!" His statement however is completely false as crime in Germany is at its lowest level since 1992.

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It's not just Trump who employs misinformation and fake news in dealing with refugees harshly. In the UK a febrile political atmosphere has been created largely because of myths peddled by right-wing papers about immigration. Looking at recent campaign speeches and referendum and election outcomes, reading the newspapers, watching the news, one gets the impression that international migration is out of control, that governments are feeble in the face of unstoppable movements, and that migrants are threatening the social fabric of many countries.

A consequence of this level of hyper propaganda is a demand on politicians to appear tough on refugees and migrants. We saw this recently when the Conservative Party danced to the tunes of the Murdock press and introduced policies it believed would endear the party to the country. It took a national scandal such as the appalling treatment of the Windrush generation for the country to realise the extent to which hostility towards foreigners had become normalised, causing terrible pain for thousands that were separated from their families.

While a ministerial resignation may have been issued to calm public outrage, it's hard not to view the scandal over the treatment of thousands that came to Britain from the Commonwealth as anything but collateral damage in the war declared by the Tories against refugees and immigrants.  The cruelty they endured was down to no other reason other than an article of faith within the Conservative Party which says that the British public would back any policy designed to make life difficult for immigrants, however cruel, inept or inflexible.

A rubber boat carrying around fifty migrants and refugees [Red Cross/Flickr]

A rubber boat carrying around fifty migrants and refugees [Red Cross/Flickr]

The Windrush fiasco prompted a national debate over the treatment of foreigners. Government policy, which was denounced for creating a "hostile atmosphere", was put under greater scrutiny. One positive outcome of this scandal, according to research carried out by the Runnymede Trust was that the British people were becoming more sympathetic towards refugees and immigrants. A reason for this shift, the authors say, is that members of the British public who are "neutral have perhaps seen the rise in xenophobia and racism and started to think maybe we've gone too far". They also found that following the Windrush scandal, the media is not putting out quite as many headlines about migrant scroungers, which the study found "definitely influenced public opinion".

France it seems is also at a loss as to how to treat their migrants. Last month, we got a sense of the price of a French citizenship when Madamou Gassama, a Muslim from Mali, demonstrated near superhuman powers by scaling a tall building to rescue a child. To some the arbitrary anointment seemed a bit medieval: "The sovereign (Emmanuel Macron) hears news of a great feat by a common man of the nation and summons him to the palace to be awarded with new threads and a scroll acknowledging his good deed." A similar feat of bravery also earned another Muslim migrant, who hid shoppers in a Jewish supermarket from an Islamist gunman, his French nationality.

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Misconceptions about migrants and refugees have made Europe hostile to foreigners. If Gassama's superhuman act was not caught on camera his bravery would surely have gone unrewarded and he would have continued to face the same hostility experienced by thousands of others like him. The likes of Gassama shouldn't need to display feats of extreme bravery to deserve recognition. People in Gassama's situation contribute more than enough to society to justify their presence in Europe.

It's precisely because almost all refugees and migrants need to work much harder for the life that the laziest westerner regards as their birth right, that we find them giving more than they take. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found exactly that. The notion that that immigrants cost more than they yield is a widespread myth based on no empirical evidence.


The organisation of 37 member states found that in almost all developed countries migrants contribute more than they take in social benefits. Refugees and migrants are productive members of society who work, set up businesses and have innovative ideas. The report found that they boosted the working age population: over the past ten years, they accounted for 47 per cent of the increase in the US workforce and 70 per cent in Europe. They also fill jobs in both fast‑growing as well as declining sectors of the economy, including the care of the elderly and health care in general.

While the OECD admits that the influx of refugees poses complex challenges, it praises the positive contributions made by them. With effective integration policies, they say that countries will experience positive transformations. They can enrich countries economically, socially and culturally, generating unprecedented opportunities for development.

As we mark International Refugee Week, we should all celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and challenge the misconceptions that are threatening the very fabric of a tolerant society we have all benefited from.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleEurope & RussiaInternational OrganisationsLebanonMiddle EastOpinionSyriaTurkeyUN
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