Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Couple Of Rumours Corrected
September 9, 2015
by Martin Odoni
Discussion of the Syrian Refugee Crisis has caused a lot of increased emotion over the last few days, especially since pictures began circulating on social media of Aylan Kurdi, the boy who drowned off the Turkish coast. One of the upshots of the photos has been that many people who normally resent immigration, including a lot of the ever-fickle mainstream media, have suddenly become passionate humanitarians, although often only in narrowly militaristic terms.
The clamour has met stiffened resistance from other xenophobic elements however, who seem determined to view compassion as a weakness, and who regard the refugees with an stubborn suspicion. Hand-in-hand with this has, inevitably, been a campaign of misinformation about the crisis, misinformation clearly designed to cast refugees in a very ugly light.
I have decided to address a few of the rumours I have seen circulating.
1) “Islamic State (ISIL) are sending hundreds of thousands of their soldiers to Europe by infiltrating the refugees.”
This may just go down as the daftest conspiracy theory currently circulating on social media. It implies that ISIL has noticed huge numbers of refugees fleeing Syria, and many of them heading for Europe, and realised that if their own troops were to ‘mingle’ amongst the refugees, they could ‘ride the flow’ to the West and cause havoc when they arrive.
This idea is ridiculous for several reasons.
Firstly, ISIL is presently fighting a war on at least seven fronts. It is not only fighting several campaigns in different parts of Syria, but it is also in Iraq, Iran and Jordan, while also holding a substantial presence in Libya. The highest estimate for the total number of troops fighting for ISIL is around 200,000. Most other estimates suggest fewer than 100,000. Therefore, for ISIL to send ‘hundreds of thousands’ to Europe would mean displacing their entire forces, and the instantaneous surrender of what they view as ‘The Holy Land’, which is the prize they are fighting over in the first place. While fighting on so many fronts, ISIL simply does not have the soldiers to spare to send to Europe, even in their hundreds, let alone hundreds of thousands.
Furthermore, seeing many of ISIL’s recent recruits are from Europe, infiltrating the refugees sounds needlessly over-elaborate. The organisation could just send their European recruits back home, any of whom who have not been identified in the West as ISIL recruits would be allowed in by birthright, without all the knotty difficulties caused by immigration procedures. If there is anything to be afraid of at all on this score, it would be European nationals who have been radicalised and return home. (And even then, given how incompetent the average militant tends to be when operating alone, that danger is still pretty slight.) It is not a plausible danger from the refugees.
One more thing; when challenged to prove that this infiltration is really happening, the standard source the anti-asylum lobby offers us – without a link to a corroborating report – is an assertion that ISIL have openly announced that they are doing it. Given that infiltration is by definition something that is done in secret, would it not defeat the object of the exercise for ISIL to let us know like this? If they really are saying such things, and I can find no reliable source to suggest they are, it seems very likely that they are bluffing to heighten our fear of them.
To the xenophobes, I would therefore like to extend thanks on ISIL’s behalf for co-operating with them so completely.
2) “The refugees are refusing aid we have generously sent to them, so clearly they do not need our help.”
This rumour seems to have been triggered by a single video of what is claimed to be a train full of Syrian refugees in Hungary. The video shows several people in a crowd apparently throwing away a couple of crates of bottles that have been presented to them.
While not wishing to sound like a bit of ‘tin-foil-hat-wearer’, I need to point out that there are several reasons why this evidence is being grossly misrepresented.
Firstly, people are presenting it in a wildly-generalised way, assuming that all refugees are refusing aid from the West, wherever they are, just because of one example in one place and time. This rumour has been debunked by the British Red Cross via its Twitter account; –
The incident in the video was a couple of people in a crowd of dozens rejecting aid from Hungarian authorities. It is ridiculous to portray that as indicative of refugee attitudes everywhere. It is even quite a stretch to assume it is indicative of the attitudes of the people just on that train.
Secondly, the video is not free-of-suspicion in itself. The only versions of it I have so far seen include no soundtrack – not that I speak Hungarian or Arabic but there would be plenty of people out there who would be able to translate what the people in the video are saying if only there were sound – there is no time-stamp on the images, therefore we cannot say when they were recorded – they could be years old for all we know – and the context of the video is unclear. We do not know, for instance, where the train came from, who the people on board the train are, or what happened to them during their journey which might have led them to reject aid.
Were I pushed for a possible explanation – and I freely admit this is speculative – the one I would point to is that the police officers in the pictures are all visibly wearing paper masks over their mouths; the implication of that is something at which the refugees could easily take offence if they are unable to understand the explanation, and their rejection of the bottles could be a way of saying, “You think we’re dirty? You think we’re carrying germs? Well we think your water is dirty!” Given the crass hostility the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has shown towards the refugees, this presumed insult would fit a pattern in their minds.
If you think that unlikely, remember that most of the refugees will probably speak Arabic and no Hungarian, while most of the police will probably speak Hungarian and no Arabic. Communication is therefore going to be immensely difficult, and it will be quite a trick for the police to explain that they are compelled to wear the masks as a precaution, whether they wish to wear them or not.
As I say, this is a speculative explanation, but it is no more speculative or less plausible, and it is far more coherent, than simply writing the refugees off as being arrogant and ungrateful – which is scarcely an explanation at all in fact.
What I can say is that there is plenty of evidence from other refugees who have made it to Hungary that they are deeply unhappy with how they have so far been treated there.
EDIT TO ADD 12-9-2015: PLEASE SEE THE COMMENT BELOW BY ROSA LICHTENSTEIN, WHICH GIVES BACKGROUND DETAILS AS TO WHY THE BOTTLES WERE REFUSED BY THE REFUGEES.
3) “Why don’t the refugees stay in neighbouring countries instead of coming here?” Also sometimes worded as, “The other countries in the Middle East aren’t taking in their fair share!”
Quite simply, most of them are. The below image from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was published in August last year, since which time the crisis has increased by well over twenty-five per cent; around September last year, the total number of refugees from Syria went past three million, and has now gone past four million.
As the graphic shows, most of Syria’s neighbouring countries had already taken in enormous numbers of refugees by a year ago, and tiny Lebanon in particular had become massively overburdened.
So refugees in the main do go straight to near neighbours. But the more people arrive, the more difficult it becomes for them to stay, as resources start to be used up rapidly. Hence, many of them start to move further afield after a while. The Kurdi family, for instance, had been in refuge in Turkey for some three years before attempting their ill-fated sea-voyage to Greece, with the number of refugees in Bodrum growing so rapidly that living conditions were deteriorating.
So when Ross England, the ironically-named Welsh Conservative candidate for the Vale of Glamorgan Assembly constituency, ‘knowledgeably’ asserts, “Genuine refugees flee to the nearest safe country. Those crossing to Europe are illegal economic migrants”, he is rather taking a ‘snapshot’ view of what the refugees are going through i.e. assuming their circumstances will remain identical for the entire time they are in exile, while asserting that if they were genuine refugees, they would be doing…. well, exactly what the Syrian refugees are in fact doing.
Now there are some neighbours in the region who have not accepted refugees, and I am certainly not defending those countries, especially the immensely rich House of al-Saud in Saudi Arabia. But even some of them have still sent considerable amounts of money to help the refugees, while the reasons they have for refusing to let people in, while still not justifying their stance, are not simply narrow callousness; the delicate ethnic and cultural balance of their populations could be adversely affected by attempts to assimilate large numbers of predominantly Sunni people. If that were to happen, it might lead to even more conflict.
So the real picture is quite a lot more varied and complex than the one the anti-asylum brigades are trying to paint.
4) “The Kurdi family tried to make the crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands because Abdullah Kurdi wanted a set of replacement teeth he could get for free in Europe.”
This rumour has been circulating since last weekend, and seems to have originated with supporters of either Britain First or the UK Independence Party (surprise, surprise). The idea is silly and would depend on Abdullah Kurdi behaving in a very counter-intuitive fashion.
The notion appears to have its roots in a part of Abdullah Kurdi’s explanation for why he had chosen to take his family away from Syria. He mentions in it (no, James Delingpole, you habitual, tantrum-throwing liar, Kurdi did say it, even a reporter from your own beloved Daily Telegraph attributes the story to him, and not just to some random blogger) that he was tortured by ISIL operatives who beat him so severely that eight of his teeth were broken.
This, along with an interview given by Kurdi’s Canada-based sister Fatima, has been twisted by xenophobic elements to mean that the only reason they were making the journey to Greece was so that Abdullah could get his teeth fixed. The problem is that this is not what she said. The reason for leaving was just that life in Turkey was so miserable for them that after three years they could bear no more and wanted to start a new life somewhere else. Being Kurdish Syrians, which is not an ethnicity held in high regard in Turkey, this is hardly surprising. Now, I suppose a chance for Abdullah to get his teeth fixed might have been a part of a ‘new life’ in the very long term, and for his own health it would have to be attended to sooner or later, but the mention in context shows clearly that it scarcely featured in their considerations.
The big question that the accusation misses of course, and for which we are still awaiting a sensible answer, is as follows; if Abdullah Kurdi’s big priority was dental treatment, why did he bother dragging his family along with him at all? He was sent money by his sister so he could hire smugglers to get him to Europe, but taking his wife and sons with him made the journey much more complicated and heavily increased the cost. (To the degree, come to think of it, that he would struggle to afford the dental treatment.) If finding a better life for his family were not a factor in his plans, would it not all have been easier, and cheaper, for him to travel to Europe alone, get his teeth fixed, and then go back to Turkey? For that matter, why the long-term plan to head all the way to Canada if all he was looking for was a dentist? We do have them on this side of the Atlantic, you know.
Another bizarre aspect of the rumour is that, with the crossing to Europe costing about three thousand dollars, a ‘free’ set of dentures sounds like a seriously false economy. I am not suggesting that Abdullah Kurdi is a man of shrewd thrift – I have no way of knowing – but then he would not have to be to see that the crossing was a dangerous and expensive gamble, for which false teeth would surely not be a worthwhile prize.
5) “This refugee crisis proves that Parliament should have voted in favour of military action against Syria in 2013.”
Just over two years ago, UK Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to get Parliamentary approval to intervene militarily in Syria against the Government of Bashar al-Assad. Cameron lost the vote at the end of the debate, and some of those who wanted military action are now presenting the current crisis as evidence that he should have been given the go-ahead.
The difficulties with that assertion arrive at us from several directions.
For one thing, the intervention proposed two years ago was expressly and specifically to be against the Assad regime, whereas a great many of the refugees are from areas that have been devastated by ISIL, which is one of the many forces arranged against Assad. Intervening to destroy the Syrian state military would have made it easier for ISIL to conquer northern Syria, triggering much the same refugee crisis.
For another, the reason there are so many refugees is that vast stretches of Syrian territory have been left uninhabitable by intense bombing and fierce ground-fighting. Whole towns have been turned into ruins. Military intervention would mean more bombing, more fierce ground-fighting, and therefore potentially still more refugees. Rather than solving the crisis, there is a great danger it would have made it worse.
The slightly infantile Western presumption of heroism in military intervention is a constant feature when Britain or the USA are at war. There are often genuine altruistic motives at work, but seldom very well-developed ones, and many of the people and organisations linked to military action do not share in them. The over-excited enthusiasm in the media, mentioned above, for the possibility of war abroad goes hand-in-hand with an unquestioning assumption that there are no sinister motives for it. There are times when the fraudulence, especially in right-wing tabloids, is like this; –
Even when motives are genuine, the effects of military interventions in the Middle East are frequently terrible, due to poor planning and clumsy execution; for instance Tony Blair’s wish (though not the wishes of most of the rest of the British Establishment) for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was probably born of genuine motives to ‘destroy evil’, but it was almost juvenile in its development and caused much of the regional instability that led to the very war now being fought in Syria.
It is therefore hard to credit the unspoken assumption that an intervention would even have been successful.
6) “The migrants aren’t refugees because they have nice clothes.”
It says a lot about our petty prejudices that we become suspicious of those in need just when they do not conform to the image we are conditioned in our heads to expect of them. It is as though we are startled by and resentful of such people not looking the way they would stereotypically appear in a movie about dispossessed people. The most well-reported example of this judgement is probably a Tweet from UK Independence Party member Peter Bucklitsch.
So there you have it. Because refugees are often arriving wearing clean T-shirts and intact shoes, they cannot be refugees, and how dare they come asking for help while still in possession of one or two things that are quite nice. It is an elitist position to take, akin to the irrational tendency to get uncontrollably angry when seeing a benefits claimant owning something expensive, even if it is the only nice possession in their whole life.
It is a silly prejudice, nothing more.
7) “These refugees are cowards! They should stay at home and fight to protect it, instead of running away.”
There is a very naive machismo driving this concept, as though every human being is just a natural soldier, born to unlimited military skills. This idea may be created by watching far too many Rambo movies, or by assuming that Luke Skywalker’s sudden transition from farmer to tyranny-toppling magical warrior is based on a real story.
In reality, in most countries the great majority of people will have no military experience or skills at all, and without them, they are likely to be a liability rather than a bonus to the defences of their home. It might have been different back in the pre-industrial era, when simple weapons, city walls, and brute strength were the orders of the day, but in these days of bombing jets, semi-automatic rifles, ballistic missiles, and heavy tanks, the best thing almost any civilian can do is just get his/her family as far out of the way as possible. It does not matter even if the civilians are young men. If they have no military experience and are poorly-equipped, they are simply going to get in the way, before just adding themselves to the gruesome pile-up of dead bodies. There is nothing to be achieved by that.
I have heard more than one person saying, “Why don’t they stay and rebuild their homes then?” which is just as silly a question. Anything they rebuild while the war is going on will almost certainly be destroyed again. This is assuming they would even have a supply of the materials they would need with which to rebuild anything, which is itself a big doubt. “Why don’t they stay and wait for the war to end, and then rebuild?” Because they will die if they stay, either of thirst and starvation from remaining in a ruined city with no infrastructure or supply lines left, or simply by getting gunned down by the combatants.
The majority of the refugees would probably like to return and rebuild, but they can only do that once it is safe to do so. In the meantime they have to concentrate on simply keeping themselves alive. Getting killed is not going to help rebuild the ruins of north Syria.
So people who make this testosterone-fuelled accusation are completely ignorant of obvious plain reality. Judging experiences of which they can have no earthly knowledge, it is easy for them to make such stupid remarks, because Britain has not been subject to horrors on this scale for centuries. (Before anyone says it, no, the Blitz in 1940 did not come anywhere close to what is happening in Syria right now. The damage caused by the Blitz was relatively brief, superficial and intermittent.) It would be very instructive to see how these ‘armchair macho men’ would respond if anything similar ever did happen to the UK.
It also bears mentioning that a lot of the Syrian refugees are Kurdish. The idea that a Syrian Kurd crossing borders into Iraq or Turkey is a ‘coward’ is nonsense, as they would be heading into countries that have very hostile views of Kurds – at least foreign-born ones. Such a move is therefore brave to the point of foolhardy.
And finally, for now at least…
8) “Isn’t it a bit suspicious how all the refugees who get to Europe are athletic young men?”
They are not. It is true that a high proportion of the refugees who get to Europe are men aged between fifteen and twenty-five, but then, while not wishing to sound chauvinistic or to write off older generations, that is the demographic that is most likely to survive such dangerous journeys. For unavoidable biological reasons, they are simply the people who are likely to be strongest and fittest.
But they are certainly not the only ones to get to Europe, nor are they even particularly close to being the only ones. Selective editing and presentation of media images by people who have an agenda are what give that impression. I will let someone else take up the story there.
EDIT TO ADD 13-9-2015: PLEASE SEE THE COMMENT BELOW BY GORDON RANKIN, WHO HAS A COUPLE OF INTERESTING STATS ON THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF THE REFUGEES. NB: I HAD PREVIOUSLY STATED THAT MR. RANKIN’S STATS CONCLUSIVELY DEBUNK THIS RUMOUR, BUT IT HAS BEEN BROUGHT TO MY ATTENTION THAT THEY APPLY TO REFUGEES IN SYRIA’S NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES ONLY. APOLOGIES FOR THE MISINFORMATION THERE.