Refugees Misdirected: How Information, Misinformation, and Rumors Shape Refugees’ Access to Fundamental Rights

By Melissa Carlson, Laura Jakli, & Katerina Linos

The global refugee regime represents one of the few generous commitments governments offer to outsiders. Indeed, few persons fleeing armed conflict actually claim international protection upon first arriving in Europe, even though the benefits of legal protection are significant. Displaced persons’ decisions to remain informal is particularly puzzling in light of the risks it entails; these include lack of access to food and housing and possible abuse by smugglers. Existing theories highlight bureaucratic obstacles and push-pull factors, such as attractive onward destinations, to explain the significant gap between formal protections and actual rights access. However, in environments of high uncertainty, decisions to apply for asylum and exercise rights depend critically on information, misinformation, and rumors. We argue that asylum seekers underutilize legal pathways because limited and biased information leads them to distrust government authorities and aid organizations, and increasingly trust smugglers. To assess these claims, we use mixed methods, and combine ethnographic and interview-based research with data drawn from anonymous online rumor trackers.

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