Currently on leave from the UN emergency aid coordination body OCHA, Greek humanitarian worker Fotini Rantsiou has spent the last two months as a volunteer on the island of Lesvos.
Europe’s refugee crisis is starting to move out of the headlines, but according to the latest figures from the International Organization for Migration, sea arrivals to Greece have actually increased from around 4,500 a day at the end of September to 7,000 a day in the past week.
The Greek island of Lesvos alone has received 220,000 arrivals since the beginning of the year, or 40 percent of the 575,000 refugees and migrants to have reached Europe in 2015.
Over the last two months on Lesvos, I have spoken to hundreds of refugees as well as local authorities and community members, and it has become clear that some of the widespread assumptions about the refugees arriving here, which regularly feature in mainstream media coverage, are based on the observations of foreign journalists and volunteers who often spend just a few days on the island.
Below are some of the most prevalent myths and the real story behind them.
Myth #1: Refugee arrivals to Greece are only from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan
While the majority of arrivals to Greece are from Syria and Afghanistan, there are also many Palestinians (who had been living in Syria), Pakistanis, Algerians, Moroccans, Yemenis and smaller numbers of Sudanese, Somalis, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis. Knowing that Syrians are often given priority, many Arab speakers try to pass for Syrians, including many Iraqis. Meanwhile, some Iranians pretend to be Afghans when they arrive in the hope that they will be treated more favourably. During the initial registration that takes place on the Greek islands, false nationality claims may not be caught, but they are unlikely to stand up to scrutiny once refugees reach northern European countries and try to claim asylum.
Myth #2: If humanitarian assistance to countries neighbouring Syria was increased, arrivals of Syrians to Greece would decrease
The idea that more humanitarian assistance will keep Syrians in the region may be convenient logic for countries such as the UK, which would rather increase aid contributions than take in significantly more refugees, and for humanitarian organisations trying to fund their operations in the Middle East, but it is incorrect for several reasons. Firstly, those Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq who are dependent on international aid are the poorest. Secondly, most new arrivals say they left Syria and Iraq less than a month ago, after selling everything they owned, or getting money from a relative abroad. Most who make it to Greece are from the middle classes and came directly from Syria.
Myth #3: All Syrians and Iraqis are running away from ISIS (so-called Islamic State)
Syrians are fleeing fighting in all parts of the country, including those regions still under government control. Most say they will return as soon as the war ends, but for now they see no alternative but to come to Europe, where their children can go to school and they can practise their professions while having some quality of life. Even those living in more stable areas are making the decision to leave based on fears about the future, lack of services (including water and electricity in many towns and cities), and the presence of relatives in Europe.
Many Iraqis come from Baghdad, which remains under government control, and many left Mosul before and after its fall to ISIS and crossed on foot to Turkey.
Myth #4: All single men leaving Syria are fleeing mandatory military service
While many young Syrian men want to avoid being drafted into the Syrian army, this is not their only reason for leaving. Many are students who want to complete their studies in Europe because in Syria it is no longer possible. There are also young professionals and artists who tried staying in Syria for the last four years of the war, but in the end could no longer survive.
See: Humans of Syria
Myth #5: Afghans, who make up the second largest nationality arriving in Greece, are all fleeing conflict in Afghanistan
Based on interviews with many Afghan refugees and their interpreters working in Lesvos, it is clear that the vast majority of Afghan arrivals are from the ethnic Hazara minority that have long faced persecution in Afghanistan and have lived as refugees in Iran for many years or were born there. After years of being discriminated against in Iran, they are taking advantage of the route that has opened up into northern Europe via Turkey and Greece. It is unclear how their asylum claims will be treated once they reach their destinations and whether their vulnerability in Iran will be recognised as sufficient basis for refugee status.
Myth #6: Foreign volunteers are doing the bulk of the work receiving new arrivals
A number of volunteers have come to Greece to combine a holiday with doing something useful, joining foreigners already resident on the islands who are contributing to relief efforts. This has been widely covered by European media, giving the impression that gaps in government assistance to the refugees and the initial slowness of the NGO response were being filled only by foreign volunteers. In fact, Greek volunteers and local citizens of the islands have been and continue to be the first responders. Fishermen, for example, often come across stalled or sinking dinghies and bring the refugees to shore or alert the coast guard.
Myth #7: The economic impact on the islands has been negative
It is a fact that during the summer in Kos, tourists complained about seeing refugees arriving at the beaches where they were sunbathing. It is also true that a number of cruises to Lesvos were cancelled and that there were negative impacts on tourism in the town of Mytiline when thousands of refugees were sleeping rough without adequate toilets. But the refugees have also boosted business for many local hotels, taxis, shops and restaurants. The more entrepreneurial have started stocking tents, mats and sleeping bags and providing phone charging facilities. A thorough assessment of the overall economic impact on the islands remains to be done.