Resilience, Peace and Security

The 5 biggest refugee myths: debunked

“It is my favourite city in the whole of Turkey. It is big and busy, and despite being crowded and the travelling I have to do get to university, I still love it.’’Sidra Taleb looks out across the water from the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. The 21-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo has been living here since 2014 and is studying dentistry thanks to a Turkiye Burslari scholarship. ; In 2019, Turkey continues to be home to the world’s largest refugee population (around 4 million, including nearly 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees). Refugee students have been awarded full scholarships to study at Turkish universities with UNHCR’s support. These scholarships cover the full duration of academic study towards a degree, provide monthly stipends to cover living expenses, and offer activities where students can meet and create peer support networks. UNHCR works with key actors in the higher education sector including the Higher Education Council and Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), and convenes a higher education working group that brings together different actors who provide scholarships, disseminate information on higher education opportunities and have support or bridging programmes for students.

Like the majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Sidra Taleb lives in an urban area. Image: UNHCR/Diego Ibarra Sanchez

Alexander Court
Marketing Communications Lead, World Economic Forum
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Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence. That is broadly the definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention — the key legal document that outlines the rights of displaced people.

But all too often this official record gets ignored, and refugees endure the consequences: hate speech and discrimination.

On World Humanitarian Day, committed aid workers get well-deserved recognition, and the world shows support for people affected by the world`s worst crises.

We mark this day by taking aim at common misconceptions about refugees and revealing how displaced people bring value to societies, economies and communities.

Image: UNHCR

Myth: most refugees flee to the US, Europe and Australia

Media coverage regularly shows refugees landing on Greek or Italian islands after the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Footage from the US southwest border suggests Arizona is being flooded by people fleeing violence in Central America.

But data shows a different picture. Eighty percent of the world’s displaced people in 2018 were registered in countries neighbouring the one they fled.

Take the 6.7 million people who have escaped war in Syria and are now registered in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. According to UNHCR, most people who fled South Sudan are now in Sudan or Uganda, and the vast majority of Rohingya refugees who fled human rights violations in Myanmar are now in Bangladesh.

Refugee admissions to the US are actually at the lowest levels since 1980, when the Refugee Act was introduced. And Canada welcomed more refugees through resettlement than the United States in 2018.

Myth: all refugees live in camps

Refugee camps differ from country to country. In some places they are organised areas with government-provided facilities. Elsewhere, camps can be a group of makeshift shelters built by people fleeing conflict.

One thing that is true of most refugee camps is there is “some limitation on the rights and freedoms of refugees and their ability to make meaningful choices about their lives”.

The reality is most refugees live in towns and cities. According to data published by UNHCR, 61% of all refugees were living in urban areas in 2018.

The largest number of urban refugees in 2018 were people who had fled the civil war in Syria. In fact, of all Syrian refugees in the neighbouring countries only 8% are in refugee camps.

Data from Germany showed over 1 million refugees living there were in urban areas.

UNHCR even encourages governments to ensure camps are only temporary, and the OECD has collected data showing the benefits of integrating refugees into local communities.

Image: UNHCR

Myth: refugees leave their countries to find better jobs

Semantics matter here. Using the words 'refugee' and 'migrant' interchangeably causes problems for both populations.

People who run for their lives and cross international borders without papers often put themselves and their families at great risk. Consequently, one of the most essential principles established in international law is that refugees should not be forced to go back to areas where their life would be under threat. But these risks are rarely faced by those people who move to a new country in search of a better life.

Identifying refugees and migrants as one group of people can have real consequences for the safety of refugees because blurring these lines obscures the importance of legal protection that countries are committed to providing refugees.

Myth: refugees get access to education in countries of asylum

Data suggests that for each additional year people stay in school leads to an earnings bump of 5% to 10%. But when people flee conflict in their communities, they also leave schools and universities behind. People who are seeking safety often have distinct motivations to learn valuable skills and earn new qualifications.

Learning a new language can be life-changing for someone trying to adapt in a new place. A degree recognised by employers in a new country can open many doors.

Globally, 34% of university-age youth are in education, but that figure for refugees is just 1%. Why is that so low?

“Access to education is a fundamental human right,” says UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “Yet for millions of women and girls among the world’s ever-growing refugee population, education remains an aspiration, not a reality.”

Only 61% of refugee children have access to primary education, compared to an international average of 91%. At secondary level, 23% of refugee teenagers go to school, compared to 84% globally.

Refugees face huge challenges to finishing school and achieving similar grades to people who are not affected by conflict.

Image: UNHCR

Myth: I need a mobile phone, refugees don’t

Connectivity is an essential part of modern life, and the idea that refugees are locked out of digital communities is misleading.

Refugees around the world are at a disadvantage, and data shows they are 50% less likely than the general population to have a smartphone. But this is mainly because of costs; refugees around the world often spend up to a third of their disposable income on staying connected.

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