A look at the numbers behind the stream of refugees flowing into Europe as political leaders struggle to ease the burden. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Tragic images of refugees and migrants desperately seeking safety in Europe have shocked the world. The continent is facing its worst population displacement crisis since World War II. Its response has been far from coherent: Policies change nearly daily, people ping-pong between borders while politicians cry blame, and thousands drown in the Mediterranean while others are saved. Given this chaos, many myths about migrants and refugees persist. Debunking these misconceptions can lead to better policies to improve human rights.

1. This is a migrant crisis, not a refu­gee crisis.

It’s both. The people flooding into Europe can be sorted roughly into three groups: refugees, economic migrants and those fleeing violence. Many media outlets, including The Washington Post, have used the terms interchangeably. But the difference is not just a matter of semantics. It determines whether someone can legally stay or be sent home.

Under international law — and the asylum laws of the United States and most Western countries — the term “refugees” refers to a very narrow group of people. Legally, a refugee is someone who has fled his country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. No state, regardless of whether it has signed the U.N. Refugee Convention, can return a refugee to a place where her life would be endangered.

Refugees line up to cross the border between Croatia and Slovenia. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

“Migrant,” by contrast, is a term with no meaning in international law. In common parlance, it is used to describe people seeking work opportunities. States have no legal obligations to migrants — they are free to deny them entry or deport them. So when European politicians lump together all those at their borders as “migrants,” they imply that their nations owe those people nothing.

Although the term “refugee” is also commonly used to refer to people fleeing war, most of those trying to escape violence in Syria and elsewhere are legally not refugees and are ineligible for asylum, because the threat to their safety is not specific enough to meet the legal definition. Some states will choose to grant them temporary protection. But only 54 percent of Syrian asylum seekers in Europe last year, for example, were granted asylum. The rest may be sent back into the war zone.

2. The migrants and refugees present a security threat.

Politicians and news media figures on both sides of the Atlantic have perpetuated this myth. “Given the sheer magnitude of the migration, it is a virtual certainty that terrorist organizations are taking advantage of the crisis to insinuate themselves into Europe,” journalist Ian Tuttle wrote for the National Review in a typical assessment.

Yes, in theory, terrorists could exploit the same porous borders exposed by human smugglers. But in practice, they are unlikely to use migration routes to infiltrate Europe — and checks are in place to catch them if they try.

As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, has argued, well-funded terrorist groups have no need to embark on complicated and dangerous schemes to get to Europe. Anyone who can simply take a plane is unlikely to risk his life by using a smuggler. And indeed, many foreign fighters already have European citizenship.

Moreover, Europe has plenty of experience handling asylum applications from residents of states known to harbor terrorists, Iraq and Afghanistan prominent among them. If Islamic State fighters or other people plotting terrorism try to enter that way, stringent background checks are in place to help weed them out.

3. Overly generous rescue operations encourage more refugees and migrants.

In October 2013, Italy launched Operation Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue operation for migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The program saved more than 130,000 people from a watery grave. Yet it had fierce critics. “We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister of state, Baroness Anelay, said last year. “We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor,’ encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.”

But Mediterranean migration is driven by human desperation, not by Europe’s willingness to rescue. When Mare Nostrum was suspended in October 2014 and superseded by a smaller-budget E.U. operation that kept close to the Italian shores, migration flows continued unabated — and the death toll increased. From January through the end of April, 1,721 migrants and refugees died crossing the Mediterranean, setting 2015 up for a record death toll. Then, because Europe began providing more funding, boats and planes to the effort, and started patrolling a broader swath of sea, the death toll dramatically dropped to 99 between April 27 and June 29. Still, an estimated 2,500 people had died this year crossing the Mediterranean as of the end of August.

4. Europe is hostile to the migrants and refugees.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote that his country must “defend our borders” from people who were “raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture.” While his comments are extreme, they reflect anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe. According to a 2014 Pew survey, 63 percent of Italians, 50 percent of Poles, 53 percent of Greeks, 33 percent of Germans, 27 percent of French and 26 percent of Brits view Muslims unfavorably. Meanwhile, Hungary and Bulgaria are sealing borders with walls and fences; Estonia, Macedonia and Ukraine have similar plans.

But while some of the poorer nations and former Soviet bloc countries have been especially hostile, Europe’s wealthier states have been relatively generous. The European Union on Tuesday adopted a plan to resettle 120,000 asylum seekers, over the objections of Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. That’s on top of the tens of thousands of people to whom Western European countries granted asylum or offered temporary protection in 2014. Germany has been the most generous: It took in 40,560 asylum seekers last year and expects to receive as many as 800,000 this year. And Sweden has been granting permanent residency to all asylum seekers from Syria.

5. Wealthy Persian Gulf states have not been doing their part.

As Amnesty International and other prominent groups have noted, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain “have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.” None of those countries are signatories to the Refugee Convention, and all have asylum systems that are weak or absent. It would be difficult for them to suddenly recognize people as refugees and permanently resettle them.

But gulf states have assisted in other ways. They have donated to support the U.N. refugee agency’s efforts in countries neighboring Syria. They have welcomed large numbers of foreign workers, including 2 million to 3 million Syrians, many of whom arrived since the war began. And they have quietly renewed the visas of Syrian workers so that they don’t have to return to Syria. Saudi Arabia also says it has given Syrians free health care and education, and has granted permanent residency to hundreds of thousands of them. Other Syrian workers in the gulf have more tenuous legal status, since they can be fired and sent home at any time. For some, though, conditions in the gulf states may be better than what they would face elsewhere.

Twitter: @JillGoldenziel

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