By Hattie Williams
Misinformation and cynicism” dominate the global public perception of the refugee crisis; and most people underestimate the total number of Syrian refugees by more than four million, a new humanitarian study suggests.
Official figures from the UNHCR suggest that there are currently more than 4.8 million Syrian refugees in the world. Members of the public in Britain and France are reported to estimate the total number of Syrian refugees at 300,000, and the United States at 100,000.
The majority of the public also confuse refugees with economic and other types of migrant, and cite terrorism above forced migration as the most pressing humanitarian challenge, now and for the next five years, it says.
The research was published in the first annual Humanitarian Index, a global study of public attitudes towards humanitarian issues, launched by the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, in Yerevan, Armenia, last month.
It comprises a survey, conducted by the research firm Edelman Intelligence, of 4000 respondents, who represented the general population of the US, UK, France, and Germany, and 600 of the online population in Lebanon and Iran (acknowledging a disproportionate representation of men).
The public are also less aware that countries in Africa, such as Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Eritrea, and in Asia (Burma/Myanmar) are also significantly involved in the crisis. Only 15 per cent correctly identified Turkey as the country with the highest intake of refugees.
The findings point to an “urgent need to inform the public”, the chief executive of the charity Concern Worldwide, Dominic MacSorley, said. “A passionate and mobilised public is critical to both ensuring support for the investment necessary to alleviate human suffering, and also to hold political leadership accountable for tackling the root causes of the crisis.”
All the respondents considered terrorism to be a more urgent global concern than migration, which was second for the UK, Lebanon, and Iran, but ranked seventh on the list of humanitarian issues for the US, and fifth in France.
The US respondents also thought that their country had taken three times as many Syrian refugees as it had, and in France and Germany these estimates were five times higher than the actual figures.
The President of the conflict-prevention organisation International Crisis Group, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, said that the crisis “will only get worse unless world leaders agree to better co-ordinated and principled action, and are buttressed by a better-informed public awareness of its true causes and dimensions”.
Research in the Humanitarian Index also points to a “compassion gap”: a significant imbalance between what people say and feel about the crisis compared with what they are willing to do to respond.
Half of the respondents felt that refugees had been abandoned by the international community, and the majority agreed that refugees deserved support. Only half of these respondents, however, said that they would actively help Syrian refugees if they could; and most doubted that this would make a difference.
Of those who had taken action, 27 per cent said that they did so after hearing a personal story of a refugee. Close to 40 per cent of these are reported to have shown an “overwhelming curiosity” to read more personal stories about the crisis.
Seventy-one per cent also said that they had “great respect” for individuals who travelled to areas of conflict to deliver humanitarian aid, despite the risk to themselves.
Nevertheless, finding a sustainable solution to the refugee crisis was the responsibility of international bodies, 70 per cent said, and the world leaders Chancellor Merkel, President Obama, and President Putin were the most capable of doing so. The majority also put their confidence in the EU and the UN, over other organisations, to solve the crisis.
The Humanitarian Index was presented by the vice-chairman of international public affairs at Edelman, Jere Sullivan, before an award ceremony on Sunday, at which the Burundian humanitarian Marguerite Barankitse was named as the first ever Aurora Prize Laureate.