Journalists and politicians are wilfully ignoring the facts about Muslims and migrants, a senior figure in the UN has claimed, leading to a complete misrepresentation of the refugee crisis engulfing Europe.
Michael Møller, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, argues that contrary to popular belief, the number of refugees relative to Europe's population is tiny, and violence is not the main reason people leave Syria.
And the claim that this is the 'biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War' is completely incorrect, he tells The Huffington Post UK.
Møller, who spent more than 35 years at the UN, including working as Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's representative, laid out 17 things he believes we have got drastically wrong in our understanding of the crisis.
He said he is "baffled" and angry that the narrative around refugees does not reflect the facts, leading to counterproductive actions like cutting financial aid to countries around Syria, which "obviously" forces people to move on from underfunded camps.
He accused the media of reducing refugee stories to the "lowest common denominator" and politicians of "pandering" to xenophobic views to win elections.
"It doesn’t need to be this way," Møller said in an interview with HuffPost UK. "We have the means, we have the experience, we have the human capital and certainly we have the money to deal with these issues in a very, very different way.
"We keep repeating the same mistakes... and we end up having to pay 10 to 100 times more for the consequences of the stuff that we didn’t solve in the first place."
In a wide-ranging interview, Møller laid out basic facts that should make people rethink the refugee crisis:
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A claim often applied to the influx of refugees to Europe is that it's the world's worst refugee crisis since World War II. “It’s not," says Møller, "because we’ve had bigger numbers, firstly in the 70s and 80s, and in fact in very similar situations."
He cites the crisis in south east Asia in the late 70s to mid-80s, when refugees dubbed 'boat people' fled Vietnam and Cambodia by sea.
"We had millions of people fleeing - hundreds of thousands of them in boats - countries closing their boarders, people smugglers making fortunes, and a lot of them dying on the high seas.”
"At the same time we had the Afghan refugee problem that was over five million people, and we had the horn of Africa, - several more million.
"If you look at Europe, not that long ago in the 90s when we had the Balkans crisis, we were dealing with very big numbers as well, and we dealt with them much better that time.”
Møller says feedback from people working in refugee camps suggests the main reason people are leaving Syria isn't the crippling violence in the country. "The number one reason why people leave Syria is not the bombs or the food or the cold, it’s because they want to find educational opportunities for their children," he explains.
"So you need to make sure that in Lebanon and Jordan and other countries that are suffering incredibly under the weight of millions of refugees, you help them set up structures that will provide food, shelter and education."
"The determination of who is a refugee is a very clear determination under international law," says Møller, who can't understand why the media uses the two interchangeably. "[A refugee is] somebody who asked for asylum because he or she flees persecution, war, and other horrible things, and falls under the 1951 convention. Refugees are a particular group of people that in law have the right to protection of a certain kind."
There should be no misunderstanding between refugees and economic migrants, he says, but yet “the terms refugee and migrant have been put into the same salad. To put it very bluntly, every refugee is a migrant. Not every migrant is a refugee. It’s quite clear actually."
"Having said that, of course all migrants have the right to have their human rights protected," he adds. "They have the right to seek a better life than the one they have. But they just have to be dealt with in a different way."
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"When you look at the numbers, they are ridiculous," Møller says. The number of refugees who have come to Europe represents a tiny population increase, he claims: "We’re talking about 0.2 per cent.”
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“Particularly when we talk about Europe, we need migrants, just to keep our economies going," he says.
"Germany alone is going to need at least 350,000 each and every year for the next decade just to keep their economy going, because of the attrition rate and the lack of replacement and the mortality rate. Over the next 10 years Germany’s going to lose at least six million jobs, that’s the total workforce of Bavaria.
"[The people who fill the gap] are not going to be home-produced, these are people that they are going to have to find somewhere else. Of course, there is a different between having people just showing up at the gate and a society having the wherewithal and the right to choose who they let in, and that’s where the mismanagement comes in."
“All you have to do is look at your own country. The economy of the UK wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who came into your country many decades ago and who have been the backbone of your economy in many ways."
It's an indisputable fact that migrants are good for any society, both economically and in terms of cultural development, he claims. "There is a proven direct correlation between the number of migrants coming into a society and the increase of the GNP, for example."
Møller thinks that one reason the current refugee disaster has been mishandled is because most of the refugees coming to Europe are Muslim. “Eighty per cent or so are Muslims, and this plays a role, because the narrative about Muslims has been incredibly negative, surprisingly so," he laments. "Every Muslim is depicted either as a terrorist or just purely a criminal, which is completely unacceptable.”
Møller claims we've learnt nothing from other recent refugee crises, which we've handled with far better than this one. He is flabbergasted by what he calls "global amnesia" over people like Balkan refugees in the 90s and the 'boat people' in Asia, which could provide a blueprint for how to address this crisis successfully.
"I am baffled," he says. "We had exactly the same problems, just with different nationalities. And there were a number of years where there also was chaos, and where things were getting increasingly bad. Finally we held an international conference, and from that moment the problem was dealt with in a much more rational an operational way, with holding camps where different counties would come and interview people, where we sifted through those on one hand who were clearly refugees and on the other hand economic migrants.
"The economic migrants were helped home with guarantees of no reprisals but also with guarantees that there would be normal migration systems put in place so they could apply for migration to wherever they wanted to go.”
For the ‘boat people’, international teams organised what was known as the Orderly Departure Programme for genuine asylum seekers. “They were protected there and they were slowly taken out of Vietnam, and resettled in different countries around the world. We moved half a million people that way."
"I have to be little careful here, but I think that as a general point leadership has been deficient across the world, including across Europe," Moller says.
"I think that our politicians have been pandering, both to their electorates where these negative narratives have fueled sentiment that has been xenophobic and continues to be.
Instead of showing leadership to change the situation, "They are obviously looking at their next elections and they have been pandering to the worst kind of sentiments that you possibly could. This is true in many countries including my own.”
Møller thinks media coverage ignoring the benefits migrants bring is encouraging racism. “I think it is incredibly negative and it has fueled xenophobic and racist positions that have increased over the past couple of years in most countries in Europe.
"We’re building walls, we’re closing the doors to people, and it’s a combination of the fact that we haven’t been careful about the narrative, and the fact that it has been managed in ways that were not optimal, to put it mildly."
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Moller wants to see greater international solidarity, and calls out rich countries outside Europe who he says could accept far more refugees. "There’s absolutely no reason why places like Canada and the United States, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, even Asian countries who we helped not that long ago, shouldn’t take many more of these people. Not to speak about the countries in the Gulf who haven’t taken a single one."
The US has taken 10,000 refuges and Canada took in 25,000 in less than four months, but Moller says the huge countries could easily take more: "Of course they can."
As organisations and neighbouring countries deal with more and more refugees, world powers have actually cut funding to them over the last few years, Møller claims.
Syria's neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have been given less support as the crisis has deepened and organisations like the World Food Programme that was distributing millions of tonnes of food "simply found there was not enough money, and they had to cut rations."
This naturally forces refugees to move on from camps, says Møller: "Obviously if there are no services, particularly when winter came on, people got up and left.”
"It’s not rocket science," he says.
Things have been beginning to improve recently, but it may be “too little too late,” he says.
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Møller says it is the responsibility of Syria's neighbours to help the refugees arriving in their countries, but adds: "If they don’t have the means, there is a limit to how much they can do. A third of Lebanon's population are Syrian refugees. It's collapsing, it’s enormous.
"The social infrastructure, the schools, the hospitals, the water, the electricity, is under enormous strain, so unless they get massive help it's very hard for them as a country that wasn’t exactly paved with gold in the first place.”
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Møller, says politicians' failure to act has led to "the kind of deals that are being struck with Turkey, that are frankly not even legal in international law."
The pact between Turkey and the EU struck in April has been criticised by Amnesty International for causing large-scale forced returns of refugees from Turkey to Syria.
Amnesty's research suggests Turkish authorities have been rounding up and expelling groups of around 100 Syrians on a near-daily basis since mid-January. All forced returns to Syria are illegal under Turkish, EU and international law.
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The media has been telling a false story about refugees, he says.
"We have slid into a lowest common denominator kind of journalism in many places. Greed has been one of the issue, and the need to survive in a competitive [media] world."
Many newspaper editors think the public don't want positive stories about refugees, he says, "But the public will only want what it knows what to want. There is a clear responsibility that has to be found again somehow."
The role of the press is threefold, says Moller: "One is to inform, second is to educate and third is to hold power to account."
"It’s the second one I have a problem with, because the education role of the press in general has been set a bit aside over the last few decades."
Although many people can easily access information about the refugee crisis online, there is a "crying need" to give people more context, he says.
"Most of the seven billion opinions on the internet are very ill informed, so a lot of the readers are not educated and they have a narrow point of view coming from local communities. So if we want to avoid chaos and a cacophony that isn’t leading us anywhere, we need to be much better at educating and informing people about the context in which every single one of them lives.
"There is practically nothing that isn’t online if you search long enough. But the problem is that people have to know what they are looking for, and they have to be given an incentive to do so, and that’s where the media has a role."
He also believes eduction in schools needs to explain the crisis and equip young people to demand solutions.
"In most countries, we are educating the youth for the problems of today, and yesterday, not of tomorrow."
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More than anything, Moller is angry. “Yes, I feel pretty upset because it doesn’t need to be this way. We have the means, we have the experience, we have the human capital and certainly we have the money to deal with these issues in a very, very different way.”
In fact, he believes we could in fact have prevented the Syrian crisis from happening altogether. “Let’s go back a little further. If we had been better at addressing [the conflict in Syria] from the very beginning in a political and diplomatic way, the problem would not have happened in the first place.
"That is true in many other places was well. A lot of the refugees coming out of Eritrea right now are coming because we are allowing that government to deal with their citizens in a way that is completely unacceptable. The stuff that happened in Mali, and that was happening in the Central African republic and other places, was a direct consequence of lack of action by the world.
"We keep repeating the same mistakes where we don’t do stuff because it’s not on our doorstep, and we end up having to pay ten to 100 times more for the consequences of the stuff that we didn’t solve in the first place. And it’s really stupid.”
Pascal Rossignol / Reuters
Amid the terrible situations for many refugees, amazing work is being done to help them. These stories of compassion, creativity and invention are often ignored by the media, Møller says.
"There are plenty of good solutions out there but people need to know about them," he explains. "If we don’t write about them or show them on TV or talk about them on the radio or on social media, they will not know about them."
He champions the idea of 'constructive journalism', which doesn't shy away from the problems and hardships of the refugee situation, but ensures that "when we talk about something negative, we also show somebody somewhere on this planet has come up with a solution for it."