Rumors and Refugees

REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

In 2015, fewer than 5% of refugees arriving in Greece applied for asylum there, even though the European Union (EU)’s Dublin regulations require a formal application in the country of first arrival. Refugees who opt to use smugglers to move northward or maintain an informal status risk their safety and livelihoods. They may be unable to access healthcare, food, and shelter. They are also more likely to be arrested and deported. Meanwhile, those who use illicit routes face the possibility of extortion and sexual assault by smugglers.

Refugees’ decision to eschew legal pathways has slowed the asylum process and stalled the deportation of economic migrants, creating a governance crisis in Greece. While family ties, economic conditions, bureaucratic hurdles, and language barriers may explain why refugees want to move onward from Greece, they cannot explain how they choose to do so. Opportunities for formal relocation exist. The EU emergency relocation scheme aims to relocate over 160,000 people from Greece and Italy to other EU states. Syrians’ applications for protection had a 99% success rate in Greece, and as of December 2016, there were more places for relocation available than requests filed.

In our forthcoming article in International Studies Quarterly, “Rumors and Refugees: How Government-Created Information Vacuums Undermine Effective Crisis Management,” we examine why refugees choose informal pathways traveling through Europe. We argue that host governments and aid organizations make three critical mistakes when trying to contain crises. They limit information about legal rights, frequently change policies to adapt to crisis conditions, and implement those policies arbitrarily, prioritizing certain protected groups over others. These three factors create information vacuums ripe for rumors and misinformation. In turn, refugees develop an aversion to legal pathways and the government officials that implement them.

To demonstrate this point, our ISQ article draws on 25 semi-structured interviews with aid workers and government officials and over 80 discussions with migrants and refugees in Greece. Through careful process tracing, ethnography, and counterfactual analysis, we identify information vacuums that form following policy changes. We demonstrate that refugees respond by seeking out information from informal sources like smugglers. Counterintuitively, we find that flexible policies — crafted and adjusted to suit crisis conditions — undermine government crisis management capacity and catalyze governance crises.

One example we use concerns the EU-Turkey deal. In March 2016, the Greek government implemented ad-hoc asylum procedures, so they could quickly decide whether applicants should be returned to Turkey or had sufficient asylum claims to stay. While instituting a fast-track process seemed reasonable, officials’ on-the-ground implementation was, in effect, rushed and discriminatory. Government officials prioritized Syrian applications under the blanket assumption that they had valid asylum claims. Meanwhile, Afghanis’ and Pakistanis’ applications were stalled. Human rights experts questioned Greece’s ad-hoc procedures, and UNHCR suspended many of its activities in the country in response to these policy changes.

Currently, we are building on this research through a CITRIS seed grant, awarded to professor Anupam Chander from U.C. Davis and professor Katerina Linos from U.C. Berkeley. Through our extensive interviews, we have found that rumors are critical in crisis contexts. Our CITRIS project, called “Digital Refuge,” collects online data to build on this in-person work. We have web scraped, translated, and coded dozens of groups on Facebook in which refugees communicate with each other and with smugglers. We are aggregating and mapping the misinformation we find on a website, providing correcting information as well.

Our research findings have critical implications for information management, dissemination, and implementation. Currently, most human rights legislation fails to consider the right to information as a pillar of human rights policy, although refugees often consider information access more critical than food or shelter. International organizations also suffer from issues of transparency, while governments have been slow to adopt information transparency laws.

We ultimately argue that crisis policies need to be expanded in consideration of the right to information. Governance institutions have to increase trust in policy and reduce reliance on rumors to bolster policy compliance and boost their governance capacities.

Melissa Carlson, PhD Candidate, U.C. Berkeley Department of Political Science

Laura Jakli, PhD Candidate, U.C. Berkeley Department of Political Science

Katerina Linos, Professor of Law at U.C. Berkeley School of Law

For their generous support, we thank the U.C. Berkeley Human Rights Center, CITRIS (The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society), the Carnegie Foundation, the EU’s Jean Monnet Program, the Institute for European Studies, and the Miller Center for Global Challenges and the Law.