Myths about refugees arriving in Greece (shortened version published on 13 October 2015 by under the title ‘Greek aid worker busts seven refugee myths’)


Myth #1

Refugees are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in up to 92% (UNHCR, 2 October 2015).

While most Arab refugees and migrants come from Syria and Iraq, there are among them many Palestinians (from Syria in their majority), Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Yemenis. Knowing that Syrians are treated with priority, most Arab speakers try to pass for Syrians, including many Iraqis. Also, some Iranians try to pass for Afghans when they arrive. They may pass the initial registration that takes place on the Greek islands but obviously once they reach the countries of Northern Europe where they want to stay and work, they will go through a more thorough examination and some will be returned, without huge discrepancies in the statistics.

Myth #2

All Syrians are running away from the government regime OR all Syrians are running away from ISIS.

In fact they are running away from both, depending on the windows of opportunity to escape during a lull in the fighting. Some Syrians leave through Turkey, others through Lebanon (ferry or flight to Turkey), others through Jordan (flight to Turkey).

The same applies to Iraqis. Many come from Baghdad (direct flight to Istanbul and then to the coast to cross to Greece) and many left Mosul (either before its fall or after, through Raqqa in Syria, as recently as a few days before arriving in Greece) and crossed on foot to Turkey, gradually making their way to the coast.

Myth #3

Those single men leaving Syria are escaping the army draft.

While there are young men for whom the final straw was the draft, this is not the only reason they left. Indeed one has to ask what is the point of this war and whether we can call young men who don’t see a point in fighting, ‘cowards’. Among the young Syrian refugees there are many students who want to complete their studies in Europe because in Syria it is no longer possible. There are many young and not so young professionals (doctors, engineers) who tried to fight it out for the five years of the war but in the end could no longer survive in their or neighbouring countries. There are sports people, whether champions or trainers. There are also many artists who hope for more possibilities to practice their art in Europe, whether it is music or painting or other modern forms.

Myth #4

If humanitarian assistance in the neighbouring to Syria countries is increased –or returns to last year’s levels- the refugee flows will stop. This is incorrect for several reasons.

Refugees in the neighbouring countries receiving assistance are the poorest. They do not have the cash to fund the journey to Europe. Secondly, talking with the refugees when they arrive, most tell us they left Syria less a month ago, after selling everything they have, or getting a money transfer from a relative abroad. There are those that left Syria some time back but were not receiving assistance in the neighbouring countries. The argument that humanitarian assistance will keep Syrians in the region (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan) is either misguided or –more likely- a cynical political argument for the European countries of the North to wash their hands of the issue and humanitarian organisations to increase their funding in the Middle East. The truth is that most Syrian refugees are middle class who had middle class jobs before the war and what is most significant about them is not that they have the latest model of mobile phone or that they take selfies when they reach the Greek shores but that they have the physical resilience to endure the hardship that they go through to get to their destination, maintaining their polite manners, sense of humour and culture through song and poetry.

Myth #5

Afghans who make up the second group arriving in Greece come from the war zones of Afghanistan.

In fact, the vast majority are Hazara and have been in Iran as refugees for many years or were born there. They are discriminated against in Iran for being refugees and this is the reason they are leaving en masse. It is unclear how their status will be evaluated once they reach their destination and whether their vulnerability in Iran will be recognized, given that it is a safe country, not at war, taking into account that they were refugees in that country already.

Myth #6

The arrivals of refugees in Greece will increase the appeal of the neo-nazi party of Golden Dawn.

The areas most affected by the flows are the islands of the East Aegean, the port of Pireaus, parts of Athens and the border with FYROM at Idomeni. Refugees were at first received with some caution and questions were asked about the quality of their phones (‘too good for refugees’), the reasons for escaping from a war in their own country (‘why didn’t they stay and fight’) as well as a fear that jihadists might be coming with them. However, after months and thousands of arrivals, without any major incident (just some scuffles due to overcrowdedness and lack of reception capacity), the hosting communities are quite comfortable. Golden Dawn increased its parliamentary representation by one member in the elections of 20 September but this can be attributed to the disappointment with other parties on issues unrelated to the refugee crisis.

Myth #7

The economic impact on the islands has been only negative OR only positive.

There have been both. It is a fact that in Kos tourists complained about seeing refugees arriving at the beach where they were sunbathing. It is also a fact that a number of cruises to Lesvos were cancelled this summer and that the town of Mytiline suffered when thousands of refugees were sleeping in the rough without adequate toilets. On the other hand, once the locals felt accustomed to the flow of people, the hotels and taxis opened up to them, some shops, restaurants and coffee shops increased their business, small entrepreneurs stocked on tents, mats, sleeping bags and provided phone charging facilities and some abused the situation over charging for services and goods. The balance sheet of the impact on the economy on islands such as Lesvos, Kos, Leros, Chios, Samos, remains to be completed.

Myth #8

Turkey has been a generous host to Syrian refugees while concerned with its own security and the Kurdish issue.

There is enough evidence to conclude that the Turkish state is turning a blind eye to the people trafficking happening on its soil. With Turkish Airlines connecting to more destinations than any other airline in the world (Istanbul has direct and affordable flights to, among others, Amman, Baghdad, Basra, Beirut, Erbil, Najaf, Suleimaniah), no visa requirement for Syrian nationals an a simple e-visa to enter the country for Iraqi nationals, the borders all but open in the south east with Syria and Iraq –including for Kurds, who reach Greece without any impediments-, one easily concludes that there is state facilitation.

Myth #9

Migrants stranded in Greece are increasing.

While a percentage of new arrivals remain in Greece because of lack of funds to continue the journey, many others who have been in the country illegally for several years are grabbing the opportunity to leave now that the borders are relatively flexible, thus escaping the economic crisis and unemployment.

Myth #10

Foreign volunteers are doing the bulk of the work receiving new arrivals.

A number of volunteers have come to Greece to combine a holiday and do something useful, joining some foreigners already residents on the islands. This has been promoted by the English-speaking media, giving the impression that the gaps in government assistance and initial slowness in NGO response was covered only by foreign volunteers. The truth is that Greek volunteers or just local citizens in the islands have been and continue to be the first responders, often coordinated but usually ad hoc. This is according to a Greek saying, “Do the right thing and throw it to the sea”, which means do not brag about it. The voice of the fishermen for example is never heard in the media. And yet they often come across dinghies with stalled engines or flooding and rescue people or bring the coat guards to do it. Local volunteers in Lesvos have been organized since 2012.

Myth #11

Germany is the most generous country in Europe and will accept 800,000 refugees.

Germany fares better than other countries who have declared they will only accept Christian refugees, or no refugees at all. However, the number of 800,000 is not based on generosity, but rather a calculation of what are the German economy’s needs for the coming years ( On the other hand, small countries like Greece, FYROM, Serbia, are not given credit for adequately receiving the flow of people not commensurate to their population and economic situation and are often blamed for not controlling their borders. Just to note here, that no European country has sea borders as extensive as Greece in close proximity to the coast of departure. Italy’s case is very different: Lampedusa is 290 miles from the coast of Libya and has a better economy than Greece. Lesvos on the other hand is eight miles from the Turkish coast.


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