Often traveling in overcrowded boats and walking long distances on foot, a massive influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa have set off for what they hope will be a better life in Europe. More than 591,000 reached European shores so far this year, a number that far surpasses the total from previous years. After risking their lives to make the journey, migrants face damning stereotypes from many European officials. Political leaders attempted to drive down public opinion about migrants through a few sensitive issue areas, but the fears they espouse have, for the most part, been based on myths. Here are three of them:
Myth: Migrants carry a special risk of disease
The head of the largest opposition party in Poland warned that migrants were introducing deadly diseases to Europe in a campaign stop on Monday. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party is expected to win elections in the country next month.
“There are already signs of emergence of diseases that are highly dangerous and have not been seen in Europe for a long time: cholera on the Greek islands, dysentery in Vienna,” Kaczynski said. “There is also talk about other, even more severe diseases.”
“Also there are some differences related to geography, various parasites, protozoa that are common and are not dangerous in the bodies of these people, [but] may be dangerous here,” he added.
While there was one suspected case of cholera on the Greek island of Kos earlier this month, health organizations have said that it’s too simple to assume that the movement of migrants will spread disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that while migrants from impoverished or conflict-stricken areas may be more susceptible to disease than those in developed societies, disease exists in Europe “independent of migration. The WHO explained further:
In spite of the common perception of an association between migration and the importation of infectious diseases, there is no systematic association. Communicable diseases are associated primarily with poverty.[…] The risk for importation of exotic and rare infectious agents into Europe, such as Ebola, Marburg and Lassa viruses or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), is extremely low. Experience has shown that, when importation occurs, it involves regular travelers, tourists or health care workers rather than refugees or migrants.
There have been outbreaks of previously eradicated disease in countries like Syria, which has seen its health infrastructure crippled by four years of civil war. While its not inconceivable that migrants from Syria or other countries would transmit diseases to the European countries they travel through, many of them develop disease in the unsanitary conditions they face after arriving in Europe.
Disease has been spreading in makeshift camps, including one in the Roszke, Hungary.
“When you have no running water, no way to clean and people are arriving with contagious diseases, you have a problem,” said Teresa Sancristobal, who heads a Doctors Without Borders team at the site.
Myth: Militants enter Europe by posing as migrants
Many of the far-right political parties on the rise in Europe have warned that militants from Islamist groups like ISIS, or the Islamic State, could capitalize on the migrant crises.
Nigel Farage, the head of the British far-right political party UKIP, said that thousands of ISIS militants could cross into Europe by posing as migrants.
“At the moment the EU’s common asylum policy has absolutely no means whatsoever of checking anybody’s background and I would say we must not allow our compassion to imperil our safety,” he said last month.
Similar comments have been made in the U.S. A group of senators warned President Barack Obama that militants posing as migrants could slip in to the country in a letter last month.
Those who have followed the issue most closely, however, have said that the fears are overblown.
“The only thing I have seen evidence of has been European citizens going into Syria and committing terrorist acts,” Afzal Khan, the vice chair of the European Union’s parliamentary subcommittee on security and defense. “I have not come across any evidence the other way around.”
Giorgio Brandolin, who helps lead an Italian parliamentary committee on immigration and security said that Italy has not seen any militants posing as migrants.
“There have been no confirmed cases, zero!” he said. “Terror groups spend money on training militants; it makes no sense for them to send them over on death boats, risking them drowning on the way.”
Government officials have not just warned about Islamist militants crossing into European countries. Some have conflated security fears with xenophobic notions of national identity.
The United Nations decried a survey sent to Hungarian citizens in May which conflated the faith of migrants with militancy. In an introduction to the survey, Prime Minister Viktor Orban called migrants “a threat which we must stop in its tracks.”
Although she hedged her comments so they would not seem overtly Islamophobic, Reka Szemerkenyi, the ambassador from Hungary to the United States, made this point during an interview with NPR:
The fact is that this is a massive number of migrants of Muslim background, but that does not mean that a massive number of — the same number coming from China would not pose a problem. Obviously, we have a cultural heritage that we very much treasure. But at the same time, what is a challenge is this massive number of people arriving in the continent. The prime minister also established very clearly his admiration and his support for the Muslim faith and Muslim culture. We have also Muslim community in Hungary with which we have lived in peace and cooperation for many decades. So I think it’s not a question. What is at stake, however, is a common European security zone, which we are responsible for a part of the border of.
Myth: Migrants will devastate the European economy
Hungary has also been on the forefront of raising alarms about the economic impact that migrants might have on its economy.
The biased tone of the survey on migrants seemed to highlight the potential pitfalls of accepting migrants, while leaving any potential positive outcomes unsaid. One question on the economy did just this by asking, “We hear different views on the issue of immigration. There are some who think that economic migrants jeopardize the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians. Do you agree?”
The fear that migrants will take jobs away from residents in Europe is one that’s shared across the continent.
“There’s less and less work,” Roussel Djiki, an unemployed, longtime resident of France said. “Even before this migrant situation, there were fewer jobs. Now, it’s only going to be harder.”
But economists have found that new migrants pose little threat to the job European job market. Studies have found that migrants generally stop economic decline, increase market adaptability, and increase the working age.
“Most studies come up with positive benefits when it comes to migration,” Tim Hatton, a professor at University of Essex said. “There are lower dependency rates on the state and immigrants contribute more, not less.”
On the shorter term, however, European states will take an economic loss with so many migrants entering.
“Policy makers can also broadly agree on the immediate short-term impact of the crisis: There will be fiscal costs arising from the need to provide food and shelter to new arrivals and process their asylum applications,” wrote to Simon Nixon at the Wall Street Journal. “The European Commission is also pushing national governments to step up their budget commitments to foreign aid and to controlling the EU’s common borders.