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Two high-level figures have mischaracterized the European refugee crisis at a critical moment when the rights of asylum seekers are in great danger of being short-circuited.

Refugees and migrants line up to receive aid in a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border, near the Greek village of Idomeni March 4, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

On March 1, NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove warned about the “weaponizing” of migration and said that the extremist group Islamic State (known as ISIS) is “spreading like a cancer” among the refugees.

And, on March 3, the same day he said, “refugee flows still remain far too high.” the European Council president, Donald Tusk, bluntly called on “all potential illegal economic migrants, wherever you are: do not come to Europe.” No message of welcome for the persecuted; only a warning to those deemed undeserving.

To stigmatize refugees as a threat or to insinuate that the flows are illegal and economic is not only harmful, but is plain wrong. First, facts from the well-placed authorities:

  • According to the United Nations refugee agency, 87 percent of sea arrivals in 2015 and 2016 come from three major refugee-producing countries:Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
  • The head of the EU police agency, Europol, said recently there is “no concrete evidence” that ISIS militants have infiltrated refugee flows.

Refugees are people whose normal existence has been wrenched from them. One of the many I’ve met, “Hamid,” a shopkeeper from the town of Hasakah in northern Syria and father of two small children, fled a week before I met him in Istanbul. “ISIS came to my town,” he told me. “There was bombing. I saw children in pieces. I am traumatized. I need to protect my children.” With lawful entry at official crossing points blocked, his ordeal continued when he tried to cross into Turkey. “The Turkish gendarme opened fire on us. I think they were shooting in the air but I couldn’t tell where the bullets were going. One of the guys they caught was badly beaten, he was bleeding from his nose, everywhere. We carried him back.”

Armed conflict, discrimination, and massive human rights violations have left millions of people homeless. They have not fled by choice and many have told me they want to go home as soon as it’s safe.

Hamid and his children are not seeking economic opportunities and would harm no one. Like you or me, they want normal, peaceful lives. But for the time being, while their lives are disrupted, they, like millions of others, need help. Leaders need to be serious about identifying and removing people who pose a threat or who don’t need protection, but they should not foment fears and prejudice that play into the hands of extremists and risk blinding host communities to their common humanity.

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