7 Sep 2015

Refugees: the myths and the fears

I’ve received more abuse on Twitter while covering the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe than any other story I’ve reported. That’s made me wonder about the potency of certain myths and fears that anger and worry a lot of people. So let me try to clear up some confusion.


1. ‘They’re not refugees. They’re economic migrants.’
In the last three weeks on the road in Europe, about 80 per cent of those I’ve met have been Syrians. I’ve also met Iraqis, Afghans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Senegalese. The Syrians are fleeing war – no question. Bangladeshis and Senegalese are probably in search of a better life because of poverty and lack of opportunity at home. With others it’s more complex. Continuing conflict in parts of Afghanistan and Iraq has made normal life impossible for many, but definitions blur. If you’re a young man whose father was killed in a car bomb in Baghdad and who cannot find work to support your mother and sisters, are you a refugee or an economic migrant? I’m not sure.

2. ‘They’re lying. They’re not really Syrians.’
Certainly the best nationality if you want to be accepted as a refugee now is Syrian. I suspect that some of those who told me they were Syrian may have been Iraqi. But I am not an idiot. I ask people where exactly in Syria they are from and chat about what’s happening there to see what they say. A translator has been helping me to distinguish Arabic accents. And when someone tells me he’s from war-torn Somalia and gives me a Nigerian name, then I know he’s lying.

3. ‘They pay thousands to people smugglers. This proves they’re not genuine refugees.’
You don’t have to be poor to fear Islamic State or President Bashar al Assad’s barrel bombs. Even rich people flee war. Many of the Syrians fleeing now are middle-class, English-speaking and university educated, but after five years of war life has become impossible. Globalisation means that many have relatives abroad who send money by Western Union or other transfer services. The Eritrean diaspora is particularly well organised. This distinguishes the current refugee crisis from previous ones.

4. ‘Refugees stay in the first “safe” country they reach. If they leave they become economic migrants.’
Under the Dublin Protocol refugees should claim asylum in the first EU country they reach. Nowadays that usually means Greece or Italy. Neither can cope, so Greece just lets people through. This is not the fault of refugees but it’s true that most want to get to Germany or Sweden, where they may have relatives and where they know their children have a better chance of education and they may get work. Syria’s neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – cannot cope with the four million Syrian refugees they’re hosting. Refugee families who had hoped that by now the war would be over and they could go back to their old lives in Aleppo or Idlib realise that’s not possible, but if they stay where they are their children will not go to school. They’ll live forever in camps or building sites with no hope of a future. So they move. So would you. They’re still fleeing war. This is why UNHCR has asked European and other countries to accept more refugees from camps in neighbouring countries, as Britain is now doing.


5. ‘They’ll be a burden on European societies.’
Initially, yes, it costs money to house and feed refugees. But refugees and migrants are often the most dynamic members of society. George Soros, for example. Or Einstein. I suspect one reason Germany is so open to Syrian refugees is because their society is ageing (like ours) so an injection of young, determined, often well-educated refugees might be quite helpful.

6. ‘They’re coming for the benefits.’
They’re coming because they want a future. Statistically, after an initial period of settling in, refugees and migrants are less likely to claim benefits than natives.

7. ‘They’re all men, which proves they’re not genuine refugees. They should fight for their country.’
Many of the ‘economic migrants’ are young men who hope to get a job and send home money to their families. Remittances to Africa are more significant than economic aid. Amongst refugees I’ve seen groups of young men as well as families. It’s a mix. Some young Syrian men are fleeing conscription into Bashar al Assad’s army. Others are disillusioned with the rebels. There are more than 2000 militia, including local groups, in Syria now. Joining one is not going to solve Syria’s problems. It’s entirely rational to flee not fight. (And men often take the dangerous journey alone hoping to get their families over separately later via a more safe route.)

8. ‘Terrorists are infiltrating Europe by posing as refugees.’
Actually it’s the other way round. European terrorists are going to Syria. If terrorists want to infiltrate Europe why bother to send them on a long, arduous journey? There are plenty of potential terrorists to recruit in Europe. Much cheaper and more efficient.

9. ‘You show pictures of cute children to pull our heartstrings.’
Guilty as charged. Part of our job as journalists is to show viewers how this feels. I’ve seen hundreds of kids on this journey and I find it incredibly affecting. The girl watching Macedonia speed by from the train window as her exhausted family slept around her. The smiling toddler whose mother had placed him in a luggage cart at Vienna station. The little boy at the Austrian border who forgot all his tiredness and fear because someone had given him a plastic brontosaurus. We have an instinctively sympathetic response to children because they’re necessary for the survival of the human race.

If we didn’t have empathy we’d have died out long ago. The story of humanity is a story of movement, migration, birth and adaptation. This is just a tiny chapter.

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49 reader comments

  1. Nick says:

    This country currently imports 40% of its food and this is predicted to rise to 50% with the growth in population. This is a dangerous situation since we have a trade deficit and cannot seem to find a way to earn our living in the world. Our current agricultural production is excessively intensive, reliant on fossil fuels and unsustainable. Building houses on agricultural land will only make things worse.

  2. Zaib Mayo. says:

    May be you should be right..but most of them are genuine refugees and also needful for work & help.

  3. dalecooper57 says:

    Lindsey, I have followed your work on C4 News for as long as I can remember, having watched the show since it’s launch and have also featured links to some of your reports on my blog.
    I have always found you (and the entire news team) to be the most unbiased, honest and trustworthy journalists on TV and I’d like to be able to say I’m amazed that you would receive abuse on the scale that you describe.
    However, it is a sad fact that social media is filled with bigots and small-minded people who have nothing better to do with their time than spew bile at those less fortunate than themselves, presumably for their own gratification.

    I am only an amateur “hobby blogger” with a very modest readership, but if you have a spare moment in your no doubt busy schedule, I’d love your opinion on this post that I wrote a couple of days ago (which also includes a link to a particularly emotive C4 News piece)


    Please know that there are a great many of us out here who have the utmost respect for what you are doing and be assured that the vocal minority are just that, a minority.

    Keep up the good work,

    All the best,
    Guy Thair

  4. Stephen Townsley says:

    Radio 4 spoke to two Syrians this morning. They were working in Turkey but they thought they could get a better job in Germany so when they saw the coverage on TV they headed off. They said their motivation was money.

    Fair enough. I don’t know if they are typical, different or anything else. However I thought it was an interesting take on the opening up of borders in the EU.

  5. Andrew Hennessey says:

    Well crafted narrative Lindsey from someone well informed..at last someone with a primary evidence-based view! Thank you
    Andrew H

  6. Michael Platzer says:

    Rarely have I found a journalist’s analysis so correct

  7. depeki says:
  8. Richard says:

    At least for The Netherlands your claim that “Statistically, after an initial period of settling in, refugees and migrants are less likely to claim benefits than natives.” is simply not true. According to the Dutch CBS (Central Bureau of Statistics) 3% of natives are on welfare (Bijstand) as per end of 2014. For other (non-Western) nationalities same figures are as follows: Iran (40+%), Afganistan (40+%), Eritrea (50%), Iraq (50+%), Syria (60+%) and Somalia (60+%).

    I do believe that refugees/migrants are coming for a better future and not for the benefits per se. However, it’s clear that they prefer the countries with the best future(Germany, Sweden). According to the CBS figures, I very much doubt that The Netherlands is a great choice for refugees/migrants.

  9. Alan Warren says:

    I find it sad that many seek to deny the obvious. The majority of these people are fleeing from war and atrocities. Which of us would not do the same if we were in their position. Keep up the good work. It is making a difference.

  10. Paul Jakubovic says:

    Well done Lindsey! In addition, there is plenty of room; there are in excess of 11 million empty homes in Europe, and plenty of money. If we can afford to waste £100 billion on a useless weapon of mass destruction, we can surely spare a few billion for these poor people.


  11. depeki says:

    How about diverting foreign aid money to help our homeless ex service men?

  12. David Lambert says:

    Thank you Lindsey Hilsum for explaining away the myths! I too have received some very negative feedback via Facebook as a result of my efforts to convey the urgency of this crisis and to ask people to respond by signing petitions and contacting their MP’s. In view of the fact that we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands, the backlash from this took me completely by surprise. I doubt we’ll succeed in changing hardened ingrained opinions but at least I’ll now have some answers ready for the next time I’m criticised for my stance!

  13. Celia Sanctuary says:

    I totally support your reports on the refugee crisis over this summer. They have been humane and enlightening.

  14. Meg Howarth says:

    Great piece, Lindsey. Thank you.

    Appalled by the many abusive comments on Twitter. Keep up the excellent reportage.

  15. Jennifer king says:

    Thank you, this has explained a lot of questions I’ve had and given me the answers I needed when explaining to people the reasons why we must help the refugees, a great well written article, thank you

  16. Vilma Maritz says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reporting. We have many refugees from other parts of Africa here in South Africa. Many came here to contribute to our society, not only to flee war. They are hardworking and care for their families. Many of our most established families in SA came here as refugees, 1688 for the French Hugenots, and many waves of refugees after that. Who now has the right to deny people the opportunity to flee from intolerable circumstances to save their families and to work for a better future.

  17. Helen Self says:

    Thank you so much for this piece and all the factual information, it’s so helpful to have this kind of detail when standing up to racists and xenophobes. I’m going to our local council’s meeting this week where they are going to decide whether to take 50 refugees, and it will be very useful to have the information you’ve shared.

  18. Frank says:

    Excellent points! I wish I could formulate them as calmly and precisely as you did when faced with the ignorance or fear that induces these misconceptions. Thank you!

  19. Tom says:


    Thanks for that. You must be so proud, helping to destroy any chance of young British people owning their own homes and being able to bring up a family. As you watch the average age of first time buyers skyrocket, and see young British people on the streets as they no longer receive housing benefit, you can bask in the warm glow that you helped migrants be treated better than your neighbors and family.

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      The sole reason for a shortage of housing is because of our restrictive planning laws.
      What we have is a series of cartels that promote shortages that enhance the wealth of property owners such as myself. In any other ‘market’ the competition authorities would close down local planning departments and prosecute people who object to development.

    2. L Lucy says:

      I cannot understand the selfishness of your remarks. Nobody is denying that young people in the UK deserve the right to fulfill their potential and to enjoy a comfortable and meaningful life if they are prepared to make a valid contribution to society. The issue here is that so many people are fleeing desperate situations not of their own making and as one of the richest countries in the world we can well afford to be compassionate in the short term and reap the benefits of people who will be decent hardworking citizens in the future.

  20. Arshed says:

    How awesomely we assume that the refugees will take our jobs Nd money etc but apparently they are educated enough to start their own business for scratch and participate into Britain economy. Majority of British born are on benefits compare to refugees and we are misusing AND abusing the luxury of income support, NHS, education etc and YET we are ignorant to question pictures of children and refugees instead of try to help the humanity. Please come out of the box and think it could have been one of us in the same situation. May Allah sw shower His blessings upon all of us. Ameen

  21. Lukas says:

    Thank you. This article should be translated into Polish language.

  22. Mary says:

    Will they integrate?? Will they criticise how We live, dress etc. Will they ask that we change our,education system to suit them? I have lots of questions.

  23. Philip says:

    keep up the good work – telling the truth as you see it. Most of these people commentating get their views from the TV, newspaper or their own inherent selfishness. the stuff I’ve seen over the last few weeks in social media has turned my stomach and made me ashamed to be British.

  24. Ted Smith says:

    Twitter proves itself as the tool for cowardly bullies.

    That aside, the reason I have switched off from your reporting (and all of your colleagues’) is its one-dimensional nature. You are all reporting one story – the UK lacks compassion for refugees and we should be more compassionate and open our borders up more. You never seem to think who are the parties here: the refugees, the current UK population and those left behind in Syria/Iraq. All you report on are the first group. For the second group, their views are long-established – “no more mass immigration please”. What’s inexcusable is your blindness to the third group – those left behind in Syria and Iraq. Why don’t they count? Why do you assume that having their brightest and most entrepreneurial young people move to Europe is in the interest of those staying behind? If you asked that question you might find some of us want to help refugees with asylum, provided they leave once, as eventually it will, their home country restores some kind of peace. Then you might ask why we are so sceptical of our governments. Why 30000 Kosovans are still in the UK. Why 70% of people denied asylum are still in the UK. Then you might ask our government why we can’t have a policy that (i) provides sanctuary, food and shelter to refugees and also (ii) does not add to mass permanent immigration. That would be real journalism.

  25. Alireza says:

    I am a 45 years old iranian left my country 26 years ago as a political refugee. Yes, I received support for setteling down first in Norway and I appreciate United nation and Norway for helping me, but it was a very short period which I used to learn the language. I had a clear target; to admit to the university. A difficult task, but I made it with hard work. From the first year of the study, I worked for 6 months night shift at a bakery in Oslo, then participating to lectures almost everyday. I also did later construction work, etc. I lived like a normal Norwegian citizen, paid taxation and respected the Norwegian culture and society. I found my best friends among the Norwegians and foreigners. After 3 years study in computer science, I got my first job in a IT company and since have made successful carrier in varieous industry, including leadership roles. I’ve paid lots of taxation like any citizen, even more than average.
    Currently living in Finland, Im running my own company and my company hired several native citizens and we pay good amount of taxation…
    Now, what do you think? The cost Norwegian government covered for my first 10-12 month maybe was about 20 000 NOK, but got much more in return, right? I think it’s at the end a win win story; I stayd alive, instead of being arrested, tortured and maybe executed. Found a place to live in peace. For Norway, bringing a young, energetic, educated person and turn that to a good citizen for future.
    I hope this will give a different perspective to people who have difficulties to put themselves in position of people like us who are just seeking a better life.

  26. Frances Gray-Saffar says:

    Thank you, Lindsey for an excellent article, full of the most important facts and insight from your own experiences and impressions,many of which I have shared. The question of ” economic migrant” or ” refugee” is apparently the one which causes most problems. All laws are essentially ” heartless” they have to be “impartial” to ensure fairness, but, often, as people look at a situation from their own experience, they will, naturally, feel they are being treated unfairly, quite simply because, however hard they try, the majority of people involved in actually drafting laws will never truly understand what it is to be relatively poor and disadvantaged; that is relative to the actual situation and culture in which they are living. It is something of a paradox, in our media saturated society here in GB that ” anosognosia”- an apparently deliberate lack of understanding of another’s problems/ situation is growing. Perhaps we have media fatigue. Perhaps people think they know about a situation simply by watching people on TV, instead of actually meeting these people face to face and communicating with them… too much “screen time” in our society. I’m sure you and your colleagues must realise that nothing can prepare you for the shock of the actual confrontation… and the incredible dignity of many of these people in unimaginable anguish that you are meeting, at least I hope you do. You are doing a great job, better than many, to help create real understanding. My big fear is that a knee jerk shock reaction in trying to help now … absolutely natural & understandable though it is… and not having a coherent long term strategy in place, will not result in the right kind of long term help and these people will be let down again further down the line, which could be so much worse.. it seems that’s already starting to happen in Hungary & Germany.

  27. Viv Thorpe says:

    We have always admired your reporting – keep it up Lindsey. The current situation is heartbreaking – thanks for continuing to bring it to the attention of our country.

  28. damiab says:

    But why haven’t and Gulf states (eg Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, UAE etc. .) accepted any refugees???

  29. jj says:

    This this such a badly executed article. Half your key points don’t make any sense.

    The WORSE being you claiming that #8 is incorrect (‘Terrorists are infiltrating Europe by posing as refugees.’)

    i believe 99.99% of these people are good honest people. But it takes 1 person to blow up a building or shoot 20 people, and 0.01% of 1,000,000 = 10,000. Even ISIS said of late that they will use this crisis to infiltrate the west, and as we know, those psychos are capable of carrying out their threats

  30. Yrjö Mkkonen says:

    Thank you very much! Keep it going! We need to see the reality, not “reality” based on fears.

  31. Ann Shepherd says:

    Dear Lindsey,

    Thank you so much for this!!!!!!! It gives me some hope to know that you are out there doing the brilliant and fine work that you do!!!!


  32. Miriam mccormick says:

    Thank you for going , listening, watching , and reporting . We need to hear what’s happening, and need to be moved to empathy .

  33. Stuart A Jackson says:

    Its pretty obvious that the refugees from the near east are genuine I just think its a sad scenario, we saw this happen the Arab spring was not given the right support at the time,
    the hand that seems to be strengthened is Israel, and Iran. The dynamic forces action, the action is more of a coordinated European action, Europe has to therefore develop and fulfil the long-term American interests of Europe taking on there role, it all seems very contrived, a post colonial hangover, falling into a neo-liberal nightmare, having to be cleaned up with pre-empted.
    intentional or unintentional media overload to shut down thought, and herd us into reactions not thought out actions. Which I guess this email is part of its so sad that so many people are getting destroyed for the last 15 years, longer really, what can you say.

  34. M Robson says:

    You are entitled to your own opinions but as a journalist should remain objective. The tone of your broadcast on Saturday night was personal, unprofessional and overemotional.

  35. E.K. says:

    1. Okay, but what about Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria? Those are pretty much safe countries, and yet, the migrants keep coming.

    3. So we’re taking care of the rich ones, but what about all those poor ones who got left behind?

    5. I’m not entirely sure the world can survive another George Soros; the original one caused more than enough damage already. ;)
    Also, let me explain why western society grows old. It’s because our governments don’t support young families. There is no early housing plan for the young people; no interest-free loans for newlyweds; no guarantee of the first job. Instead, young people in many countries get burdened by student debts and face the uncertain, uncontrolled job market pretty much without help. It’s not a situation that would entice anybody to have children. If you want your countries to stop growing old, you have to support your own young, not to import foreign ones. By importing foreigners en masse, you don’t renew your population, you *replace* it… the country won’t be the same anymore. It’s the people who make the country, not the other way around.

    6. Is that true for second and third generation as well, statistically? All the foreign-looking no-lifes who wobble around Parisian, Londonian and Stockholmian suburbs spraying tags and setting cars on fire, they surely don’t look like employed people.

    7. Don’t we have our own poor unemployed young men, though? Don’t we have our own homeless to take care of? Sure, our homeless are far from cute and cuddly, but they are ours; if anybody deserves fresh start in a government-paid housing, it’s them.

    8. European terrorist travel to Syria to get their training. Then they come back with a bag of ammo and an AK-47, like the guy caught on the train lately. I suspect there will be more of them coming.

    9. The history of humanity is the history of fighting for self-preservation and the control over the territory. We must be pretty much the first developed civilization in history that lets the invaders on their land willingly (plastic brontosaurs aside).

    I sure wish you were right about them. Our survival may depend on your judgement.

  36. Pam DeLargy says:

    Thanks for this much needed correction of common misperceptions. I hope some people will learn from it and change their ideas. Unfortunately, after watching so much social media discussion on the issue, I find that many people simply have an opinion they butress with whatever misinfomation they can use-facts be damned.

  37. Debbie says:

    “We have an instinctively sympathetic response to children because they’re necessary for the survival of the human race.”

    Lindsey has spoken from the heart. We have a duty to protect our children – God”s children at all costs. Child migrants, slaves, orphans. Children abused, abandoned, neglected. Black, white, rich or poor. THEY are our future. They are on your screen and in your street. Without our love for the child, decent, moral well rounded adults will become the minority group in this global village we call home.

  38. David Cooper says:

    The quicker we bring Muslims in, the sooner we’ll all have to live under Islam, and then the suffering will be even greater. We are giving up the freedom of our descendants by helping these people in the wrong way. They should be resettled in Muslim countries instead of helping to bring us in under Islam. Look at the statistics and see the trend (this doesn’t take the new waves of refugees into account, but it’s still a good guide: http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/jan/28/muslim-population-country-projection-2030 ) – 200 to 300 years may be a long time, but beyond there it will be Islam all the way, with women and gays abused horribly. We are carelessly throwing away democracy and freedom in slow motion, passing the problem on to future generations instead of tackling it now ourselves. It isn’t cruel to keep this vicious mind virus under control here – what’s vicious is doing nothing and allowing it to take over. The extremests of IS must be laughing their heads off as they export Muslims in here and we gaily take them in. The people themselves are wonderful, but they carry a love of a book which instructs its followers to wipe us out, and extremism keeps bursting out from there. Unless they reject that book, they should not be allowed in. We either have to draw a line or just give up and submit to Islam, because if we keep doing nothing we (our descendants) will eventually be forced to do so. That is the reality of it.

  39. dartht8r says:

    I call all the healthy men the coward army that should be fighting terrorists in their own country, but instead ran away to invade and make demands of other countries. Who’s forefathers fought and bled and died for your country to make it what it is. If these cowards won’t fight and bleed and die for their own country. Why in the hell would you want them in your country? Do not come to the U.S. You will not be treated well. And we have plenty of guns and will fight and bleed and die for our country you yellow bellies. Go back and fight you cowards!

  40. Madeleine Burton says:

    Thank you Lindsay and the C4 team for superb journalism and bringing to the public this human tragedy. Shameful you have been criticised, how low can the species sink? Thank you also for using the terminology ‘refugee’ which these people are. Distinct difference between C 4 and BBC who covering the same story persist in the description ‘migrants’. The refusal to acknowledge their plight and the pathetic response from Westminster is also shameful and I am shocked but not surprised. No longer sure of the point of Europe anymore it has no collective or consistent humanitarian moral code. A UNHCR & UN higher profile would be welcome. Thank you and C 4 for speaking the truth and the best news programme.

  41. Matheus says:

    As we say in Brazil.
    “You burned my tongue”.
    Means that you showed me the opposite way of what i was thinking.
    Thanks for that.
    When there is life there is hope. All the best for them and keep up the good work.

  42. wedinakfa says:

    She said

    “And when someone tells me he’s from war-torn Somalia and gives me a Nigerian name, then I know he’s lying.”

    I say hmmm very clever journalist!!

  43. Brian King says:

    All that you say is very true but what happens when everyone has fled these war torn areas. Journalists only report “view able” news it’s a job some do it well and many are manipulators of inflammatory information.
    We need journalists to reveal “problems” but don’t require them to be judgmental. Present company excepted but soon our Journalists will all be just the same as our politicians.
    I am glad that I don’t live in Syria, I’m sorry for their suffering but I don’t want to welcome them into the bosom of my family. I want to have a comfortable old age in the UK. I’m one of the masses who is living on a government pension, in Roman times I’d be on of “the mob”, very few journalists will care how the lower orders like I live out our last few days

  44. Andrew Dundas says:

    My wife and I are willing to provide accommodation and support to a refugee family. But we’d need help with language and cultural relations.
    Otherwise we’re confident we’d get along just fine.
    How could we do this?

  45. Julie Griffithiths says:

    I am in support of helping the refugees. I am appauled at the hate mongering propaganda that goes around. The hardest thing I find to deal with is the misinformation that is spread through hearsay at best and from hatemongers at worse. I recently heard “refugees get £7,000 to resettle and a fornight later they get another £7,000” they get brand new homes….. *ect;
    I find I have to stand up and say, “That is not true”. Whilst I know I cannot change any one but myself and hope other will follow those of us with compassion. What would you say to these people? I get so frustated.

  46. Alexia Tsigka says:

    Thank you for this great article. It spoke straight to my heart. Honest and effective.

  47. Sally Gunn says:

    Thank you Lindsay, maybe you could convince C4N to run a series of stories on point 7 especially, this seems to be the point that goes straight over epole’s heads when they launch into the “In WW1 WW2”.

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