The myth of the ‘unprecedented refugee crisis’: how polemic rhetoric has allowed for the mischaracterization of refugees
In recent times, the influx of refugees has been repeatedly described as an ‘unprecedented crisis’. To pick out a few, Keir Starmer called our current situation ‘a global migration crisis’, while Richard Branson claimed in a 2019 convention that ‘The number of refugees worldwide has reached unprecedented proportions’. Such descriptions are used in attempts to spark political outrage and encourage greater efforts to help refugees. However, what ends up happening is that it creates a sense of hopelessness, a sense that there is no solution to this global problem as its scale is too overwhelming to handle. In reality, while the current refugee crisis is significant, it is by no means unsolvable. For starters, to suggest that the present number of refugees is ‘unprecedented’ is factually incorrect. During the Second World War, 200 million people were displaced from their homes, including 100 million in China; this number is far greater than the current estimate of 70.8 million. Granted, the current number of refugees is still harrowing, but it is not unsolvable. To view it as an ‘unprecedented crisis’ suggests there is no solution, when in reality the modern world has sufficient resources to combat this problem. This does then beg the question: if the number of refugees has not worsened, why is anti-refugee political discourse intensifying?
The refugee crisis is not just a problem of today, but has been a problem since forever. In 1956, when Austria was still recovering from the devastating impacts of the Second World War, its population was comprised of 2% refugees following the Hungarian revolution forcing 200,000 inhabitants to flee their homes. By contrast, around 0.6% of the EU’s population in 2020 are refugees. Coupled with the previously mentioned fact that there are 130 million fewer displaced people now than there were in 1945, it is clear that the number of refugees is not currently at a historic peak. The purpose of this comparison is not to downplay the European situation at present, but rather to contextualise the numbers of today, and to show that it is not all doom-and-gloom. When refugee numbers peaked following the Second World War, at a time when 10% of the entire world population had been displaced from their homes, the global economy was in far more ruins than it is today. In theory, the foundations for refugee aid today are far more developed: non-governmental charities are more prominent, and governments provide more international assistance than ever before.
Despite this however, foreign support for refugees has not just been substandard, it has been inhumane. In relation to the upsurge of Syrian refugees, Alexander Betts argued that it ‘it isn’t necessarily a crisis of numbers, it has been a crisis of politics.’ Indeed, refugees are systematically problematised by politicians. Take as an example the UK, where the issue of England Channel crossings has sparked a unanimous agreement from all political factions for the use of draconian measures to handle refugees. While Priti Patel has asserted she wants to make the crossing ‘unviable’, Keir Starmer has shifted Labour towards the right by accusing the government of not doing enough to reduce the number of crossings. However, neither Patel nor Starmer’s responses manage to tackle the principal issue, being the desperation of refugees making the journey in the first place. Instead, politicians externalise the issue by placing blame on each other, treating the refugee crisis as a launchpad into playing party politics, and failing to empathise with the victims of it all, being the refugees. When Betts used the term ‘crisis of politics’, he was very much referring to this: the lack of cooperation between countries and politicians, who deflect any blame and attack each other.
If politicians are culpable for worsening the crisis, then the mainstream media can be blamed for sensationalising the scale of refugees. In the UK for instance, there has been a 4% decrease in asylum applications since the early 2000s. In the US meanwhile, an Annenberg School study discovered that the average American wildly overestimates the danger posed by migrants, with the study’s participants estimating that 15% of American migrants have gang connections, while the true figure is closer to 1%. Politicians are to an extent to blame for the negative perception of refugees, with Donald Trump once describing Syrian refugees as a ‘Trojan horse’, perversely associating refugees with terrorists. This nativistic rhetoric is clearly perpetuated by the mainstream media. Terms such as ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘potential terrorists’, and ‘foreign invaders’ are time and time again used to describe refugees, who aren’t seen as victims but as threats. For example, a column written by Katie Hopkins in The Sun was titled ‘Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants’, and included lines such as ‘NO, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.’ This inflammatory rhetoric seeps into the general population’s perception of the refugee crisis, making people view refugees with more hostility. When a local newspaper shared the news that 27 migrants died attempting to cross the English Channel, 96 Facebook accounts reacted with the laughing emoji. The media has desensitized the general population, who no longer feel empathy for the dehumanized refugees but rather see them as threatening their country due to being brainwashed by the constant racist fake news about the dangers of refugees. In turn, this makes the refugee crisis appear more threatening than it actually is, as refugees are depicted as burdens, when they can actually be key assets to the functionality of society.
In a recent BBC article titled ‘Why are more fleeing their home than ever before?’, the refugee crisis was presented as out of control. As previously stated, the sensationalized idea that the current scale of refugees is higher than ever is incorrect. Through this exaggeration, one can feel a sense of helplessness at the current situation. How can the problem ever be solved, if there are more refugees than people in the UK? Benjamin White noted that ‘you can’t feel sympathy for a statistic’; refugees must be treated like humans if we wish to solve this crisis. Politicians, the media, and the people must shift their stance on refugees. It is important to remember the situation of these refugees: they are evacuating an area of violence or persecution out of necessity, fearing for their lives, and have a legal right to seek asylum in another country. A recent Home Office study discovered that 98% of those crossing the English Channel were fleeing persecution; these people are not making these journeys for economic gain, they are evidently in desperate need for help. These facts, however, are often obfuscated, as refugees are dehumanized and barred from entry into countries. Until they are treated morally, the crisis will only worsen.
The term ‘unprecedented crisis’ is not just referring to unprecedented numbers, but also to the perspective taken on the crisis. While there has not been an unprecedented number of refugees, there has been an unprecedented number of anti-refugee rhetoric, primarily propagated by hate-mongering media outlets and politicians. This has meant that the general population’s opinion on refugees has shifted from sympathy to apprehension. However, it is important not to purely view this as a refugee ‘crisis’, which connotes negativity, but to see the positive side, as refugees can be hugely beneficial to society. When this is achieved, accepting refugees can be seen as not something to be afraid of, but something to encourage and celebrate.
Mike Butcher, ‘What do British people think about refugees in the UK?’, available at https://techfugees.com/all_news/12607/
Hannah Postel, Cynthia Rathinasamy and Michael Clemens, ‘Europe’s Refugee Crisis is not as big as you’ve heard, and not without precedent, available at https://www.cgdev.org/blog/europes-refugee-crisis-not-big-youve-heard-and-not-without-recent-precedent
Tal Kopan, ‘Donald Trump: Syrian refugees a ‘Trojan horse’, available at https://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/16/politics/donald-trump-syrian-refugees/index.html
Jimmy Nsubuga, ‘Trolls confronted over laughing at the 27 migrant boat tragedy deaths’, available at https://uk.news.yahoo.com/migrant-deaths-english-channel-boat-trolls-france-160825101.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAKFEyc0PJNLO6iVr-AuiWfNJe0dV7MXwrGHQLCVGSaF1ZhtaF2s9l4Tl-TQj4VE6o2ZHz7uHGU0vPQTXRxULeg5OUIdw0FVudycJIs7d02ZYAT9sCLq0jVtOqU8052jcR7K7IesFPKqpy-4gYoUgcG7QAhJk0t7WDxaCQhf-rFT4
Benjamin White, ‘Talk of an ‘unprecedented’ number of refugees is wrong – and dangerous’, available at https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/opinion/2019/10/03/unprecedented-number-refugees-wrong-dangerous
Ashton Yount, ‘Correcting isperceptions about – and increasing empathy for – migrants’, available at https://www.asc.upenn.edu/news-events/news/correcting-misperceptions-about-and-increasing-empathy-migrants
Statistics on migration to Europe, available at https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/statistics-migration-europe_en
BBC News 2015/09/04, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoNVBBE710U
BBC News, ‘Displaced people: why are more fleeing home than ever before?’, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-49638793
Hector is a second year English & French student at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.