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Calling Bullshit On the Anti-Refugee Memes Flooding the Internet

People are taking photos out of context to paint Syrian refugees fleeing war as cowardly, body-building jihadists.


A couple of days ago the BBC published a story debunking a photo that claimed to show a refugee in Europe was a member of the Islamic State (IS). The before-and-after photo, which went viral after previous reports in the media of IS using the "migrant crisis" to smuggle militants into the European Union, turned out to be false. The man shown in the image – shared tens of thousands of times – was not an IS militant but a former commander in the Free Syrian Army who had been profiled by the Associated Press only last month.


That wasn't the only meme of this sort. There are tonnes of them doing the rounds on social media, sometimes being shared by people you perhaps thought better of. A lot of the people sharing them must just be easily led, but presumably at the heart of it are some racist jerks cranking up the meme generators and knowingly filling the internet with lies.

Keen to know how many more memes have been faked, cropped or taken out of context by those who want refugees kept outside of Europe, I spent yesterday evening wading through the horror of far-right Facebook. Here's what I found:


(Left image via, right via)

A particularly bizarre trope is that refugees are not victims of war but are in fact all body-builders who are going to come over here and stomp around British towns inflicting their severe roid-rage on everyone. They should obviously take those bulging biceps and punch Assad's barrel-bombs out of the sky.

Photographs like the ones above are being circulated on a number of far-right Facebook pages including the EDL (shared over 3,000 times), South East Alliance (a far-right EDL splinter-group) and Pegida UK.

The pictures have, unsurprisingly, been taken out of context. A quick reverse image search on the photos above and below shows they were taken back in 2013 by a photographer in Christmas Island off the coast of Australia. This becomes all the more clear in the picture below:


See that yellow writing on the blue uniform? It says Australian Customs and Border Protection.


(Image via the EDL Facebook page)

Quite a few of the memes I found try and dehumanise refugees in Europe by claiming they are all cowardly men who have left behind women and children in war-zones. The photo above, for example, shows a bunch of men being welcomed in Germany, after arriving last week on special trains in Munich. The first place I found the original photo – taken by a Reuters journalist – was on the CBC News website, on top of a video shot from the same station in Munich.

Screenshot of the CBS website.

Male refugees are obviously no less deserving than anyone else, but keen to get a sense of who else was in the crowd I decided to click and watch the full video. Here are some screen-grabs I took that surprisingly didn't make it into the meme:


(Image via Pegida UK Facebook page)

I found the above image posted on the Facebook page of Pegida UK, the British offshoot of an Islamophobic street-based protest movement, which first formed in Germany last year. It accompanies an invitation to protest outside Downing Street on the 19th of this month to oppose Britain being given to "complete strangers". You might have thought someone who really hates refugees would have a good idea of where they're actually coming from but apparently not. The ship photographed – with comments calling for it to be "torpedoed" – is actually from 1991 and shows several thousand Albanians leaving for Italy.


This photo obviously looks old – taken with on film. Are these racist-meme mongers even trying any more? You have to wonder if the people sharing this one just want to believe it.

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ERMEGERRRDDDD!!!! It's happening RIGHT NOW! (Screenshot of the Britain First Facebook page)

Here's one from Britain First, the far-right group with an influential web presence and memes that your grandma is highly likely to share on Facebook. According to the group the image above shows 2000-odd Isis fighters heading, as we speak, to your pokey little English town.

In fact another quick reverse image search reveals the photo was taken back in 2013 by a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and shows displaced Syrians crossing the Tigris River into Iraq.


Last month, after the number of refugees trying to reach Britain from Calais rose sharply, a bunch of reports surfaced in the media about reception centres becoming full and refugees that had made it over temporarily staying in British hotels.

The thought of asylum seekers staying in two star B&Bs in Wigan was too much to handle for some racists who believe people fleeing Syria and Eritrea should be punished for the government's poor track record on homeless veterans. A few weeks ago one far-right group called the Pie and Mash Squad — a bunch of football hooligans linked to the EDL – decided to take action by encouraging its Facebook followers to leave fake reviews on TripAdvisor slandering the refugees and criticising the hotels for having them.


Reviews quickly began appearing online. I found one user called Natalie S who had written two posts on the same day for two different hotels: one in Stockport and one in Cardiff, both extremely hostile to the refugees staying there.

TripAdvisor reviews of the hotels which have accommodated refugees.

Was Natalie S a follower of the Pie & Mash Squad? Or was she a concerned British hotel guest that had recently stayed in both Stockport and Cardiff? It's hard to prove for sure but the Daily Mail certainly seemed convinced.

Screenshot from MailOnline.


(Image via the EDL Facebook page)

The BBC may have debunked the first viral photo but you can expect to see plenty more. I found this image posted on the EDL website.

Let's put aside any doubts about whether that's even the same guy from left to right. Given the EDL's usual schtick, the clear implication is that this guy is a jihadi terrorist. However, there's no real evidence to say who he was fighting with when this photograph was taken. If anything, his uniform suggests that he could be a former fighter for the YPG – a Kurdish, non-Islamist group battling the Islamic State in Syria. It's not cut and dry, but if anything Isis fighters might be more likely to wear black and cover their faces.

The image was also tweeted out by the editor in chief of a Lebanese radio station – Radio Sawt Beirut International – who claimed he was a Kurdish militant.

(Image via Twitter)

In short, you should probably double check before you believe any anti-refugee memes that might float into your feed.

More from VICE:

We Asked an Expert Whether Britain's Secret Anti-Isis Drone Strike in Syria Was Legal

How to Flat-Share with a Refugee and Crowdsource the Rent

Why David Cameron's Pledge to Take 20,000 Syrian Refugees Is Pathetic