Refugees: myth vs fact

Eight myths about refugees debunked
 Refugees: myth vs fact

'Refugees can choose to stay home, but move for better jobs overseas.’ 

‘Refugees are a drain on local resources.’

‘Refugees are terrorists and extremists.’

It is misconceptions like these that fuel discrimination and hate against refugees worldwide. As one of the most vulnerable groups in the world, these often ungrounded perceptions make the lives of refugees more complicated than they already are. 

As of June 2019, there are about 25.9 million refugees worldwide, over half of whom are under 18 years old. The refugee crisis is growing and universal, and everyone has a part to play.

Knowing how to tell fact from fiction is the first step to being a part of the solution.

Below, we debunk eight myths about refugees.



Refugees can choose to stay home, they are just moving for better jobs overseas

Refugees leave their homes because they have no other choice. They flee to escape violent conflict or persecution in their own country, to protect their lives and those of their families. There is also no option for them to safely return home as their governments will not or cannot protect them from human-rights abuses. People who choose to leave their homes for opportunities abroad fall under the broader category of migrants.

Refugees and migrants are the same thing

Refugees have been forced to flee their home countries because of war, persecution, or violence. They cannot safely return home.

Migrants, on the other hand, may leave their country for any reason, such as employment or education. They continue to be protected by their own government even after leaving their home country, and can return home.

Refugees are terrorists & extremists

Grouping refugees as terrorists or extremists is a false and inaccurate generalisation. Just as how innocent people are victims of terrorist attacks, refugees are also victims of terror in their own countries. 


According to a 2016 UNHCR report, any perceptions that link terrorists and refugees are “analytically and statistically unfounded, and must change”.


To quote UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, “it is not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism, it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees.”

“I have met refugees from different countries of origin, Myanmar, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Bhutan, etc. While I may not know each of them personally, they are some of the nicest and down-to-earth human beings I have met. They are honest folks like you and me who have had to live as refugees/ asylum seekers.


There are people of all kinds and before we meet them, we should not jump to conclusions or readily trust sweeping statements like the above. Governments and the media will want you to think a certain way about refugees and displaced persons, we need to critically evaluate and know where to get news and information from, to not fall prey to sensationalised news and misinformation.” - Mathilda Ho, founder, Advocates for Refugees - Singapore

Refugees steal jobs from locals, and cause disruption in local communities

Refugees flee their country out of fear and in hopes of survival, not because of economic intentions.  


Moreover, countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia do not have legislation for the granting of asylum or refugee status. Under the law, refugees do not have basic rights to employment, education and healthcare. 


Refugees rely on non-profit organisations for assistance, or in some cases, have started their own programmes — such as learning centres — to support themselves and others.


But others desperate to make ends meet may end up being exploited in the informal work sector, or trafficked into sex work. 


For refugees who have successfully resettled and attained asylum, their involvement in the economy has been reported to grow the domestic market and create new jobs, according to an OECD research study.


By providing them with avenues and subsequently rights to work, to health, and to education, refugees can start productive lives in their host countries. The faster they can integrate into the labour force, the faster they can become productive members of society.

"Hosting refugees is always seen to disrupt socio-cultural order. But culture is always changing, and we all came from somewhere so we need to stop seeing them as a threat but rather as people who can contribute in all aspects of society." - Nursyazwani Jamaludin, Advocacy Research Coordinator, Advocates for Refugees - Singapore


"[Refugees] come from all walks of life, but they share one common attribute: They are highly resilient, having crossed many borders and made treacherous journeys in search of safety. They are only rendered helpless by the outdated model of 'aid' in the receiving country, where many are robbed of their autonomy and become passive recipients of 'aid' and charity." - Gabrielle Tan, founder, Action for Women

Refugees pose a health hazard to locals

When it comes to any form of cross-border travel - travel for leisure or refugee migration - health is a legitimate concern. 


The issue of hygiene and sanitation is all the more pertinent in light of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Most refugees live in areas with limited sanitation systems and health facilities, and are a group who’s at risk during this outbreak. The UNHCR is currently working with governments to step up health, water, sanitation services to protect refugees. Read more on what UNHCR is doing here.


Just as how many of us did not choose the pandemic, refugees likewise did not choose to live in areas with low sanitation where they would be more vulnerable to contracting the virus. To think that refugees are health hazards merely because of their status, has more to do with existing prejudice rather than facts.

Refugees will never be able to integrate with the locals in the  host country

Only when locals are willing to put perceived differences aside and accept refugees, can they integrate and be part of the local community. 


To be accepted and included in the local community is something refugees truly appreciate. Some refugees have shown this gratitude by giving back however they can to refugees and non-refugees alike. 


By accepting refugees, communities are protecting the most precious right of all: the right to live.

"One misconception is that they are unable to integrate with locals. In Malaysia we see three generations of Rohingya families building relationships with local communities and participating in activities. Many refugees feel that they are part of Malaysia and feel that they contribute to the country." - Whitney Tan, Executive Director, Reyna Movement
Refugees do not have any rights

The 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol are the global legal documents on which the laws and rights of refugees are enshrined. 


Under the 1951 Convention, refugees should have access to medical care, schooling and the right to work. But not all countries are signatories or have ratified the convention. 


Regardless of whether they are signatories, no country can forcibly return refugees to a territory where they face danger. This is a rule of customary international law.


There’s nothing I can do to help with the refugee crisis

Given the scale and extent of the refugee crisis, it may seem like your individual effort is but a drop in the ocean. This is not true.  Any attention or effort we dedicate to the cause can do a lot to help. 


We can start by accepting refugees and speaking up on behalf of our marginalised friends. By accepting refugees, we are protecting the most precious rights of all: the right to live. We can also support various organisations who are committed in protecting and helping refugees as they navigate through this crisis.


Find out how you can help here.

Discover all our stories about refugees and their advocates in our series, and be inspired to take action.

Want to know more? Here are the articles we referenced to compile this resource:




Lynn Chan