The migrant “crisis” is not really much of a crisis anymore in the United States or in Europe, although you wouldn’t know that from all the talk of “invasion” on both continents. The number of border crossers and asylum seekers is far lower than in years past. But right-wing propagandists believe it’s a winning issue for them, and they have a long reach.
So one shouldn’t be surprised to find they extended their activities as far as Greece, where a man working with far-right Canadian author and YouTuber doctored a secretly recorded video in an effort to discredit aid workers helping asylum seekers on the little island of Lesbos.
Breitbart and RT [Russia Today], have repeated the propagandists' lies — and now at least one aid worker is getting death threats, making her life-saving tasks all the more difficult.
Ariel Ricker, the American director of Advocates Abroad, a nonprofit group that assists refugees and other asylum-seekers, said she was having coffee in a café on Lesbos when a young man whom she knew as a journalist named "Josh" approached her.
"He came to me and asked if I could take a break from work," Ricker told The Daily Beast. "He sat down, we started chatting about our work and in general the situation on the island. I was glad to help. He never mentioned that he wanted to interview me nor that I was being recorded, taped or filmed."
In fact, the man's name isn't Josh and he isn't a journalist. He’s British and his name is George Llewelyn-John. He was in Lesbos working undercover for Lauren Southern, an anti-immigrant author and documentarian tapping into veins of xenophobia, racism, and white supremacy.
In 2017, the Italian coast guard detained Southern for trying along with others in the “white identitarian” movement to block a boat carrying refugees across the Mediterranean Sea.
Thousands of people in recent years have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in order to seek asylum, and in 2015 roughly a million people flooded into Europe, mostly headed to Germany to escape the horrific civil war in Syria. Around 82,000 migrants have attempted to reach Europe by sea so far in 2018, the United Nations reported.
The European Union negotiated an agreement in 2016 between Turkey and Greece, under the terms of which Lesbos and other Greek islands became processing centers for refugees and asylum-seekers. Around 30,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Greece in 2017, according to the United Nations and Greek authorities.
Llewelyn-John told The Daily Beast his team specifically targeted Ricker. "My producer was on the island to speak to NGOs and find out more about the work they do and understand their perspective on the crisis. As part of those conversations, it became clear that Ariel would be of particular interest and so we decided to investigate."
On Nov. 12, Southern tweeted a blurry video that showed Ricker speaking to Llewelyn-John at the cafe. In a voiceover, Ricker talks about teaching refugees to be "honest" in their interviews with authorities, who Ricker said could be inflexible and "fucking stupid."
"I tell them this is acting, all of this is acting ... for them to get through, they must act their part in the theater," Ricker says in the voiceover. Advocates Abroad confirmed the voice is Ricker's.
Southern claimed in a tweet that Ricker "teaches migrants to lie & pretend," an assertion that the video does not support and which Advocates Abroad denied. "Those who filmed the video spliced informal comments made by our director and presented them entirely out of context to make it appear that we do not stand for the people, institutions and principles we serve," the group stated.
"This tape is a heavily edited, poorly spliced and offensive false representation of my actual words, of how I've ever operated or taught my teams to operate,” Ricker told The Daily Beast. "What we do is prepare the refugee for his/her interview by reviewing the timeline of their journey and the reasons for which they had to flee. The technique we use draws vastly on the experience of many lawyers who have prepared their clients for asylum interviews or trials."
"The interview is an extremely stressful situation in which the client could easily feel overwhelmed and panic," Ricker continued. "We want refugees to be able to tell their stories, empowered and confident that what they say will be listened to."
But RT and Breitbart ran with the "lie" story and even celebrated the anti-refugee backlash, which RT described as "understandably strong."
Lesbos was a hotbed of racial and religiously-motivated violence even before Southern tweeted the propaganda video. In April, a mob of far-right protesters attacked asylum-seekers who had been holding a separate demonstration in Mytileni, a town on Lesbos.
The smear campaign targeting Ricker poured fuel on the flames. "This video led to shocking threats of rape and murder against our executive director and our volunteers," Advocates Abroad stated. "By our last count, there were 37,000 of these threats."
The group shut down its social media. Ricker, who earlier survived a serious assault by a Greek Nazi, began traveling with a bodyguard.
Llewelyn-John dismissed Advocates Abroad's charge that the edited video misrepresents the group's activities. "Ms. Ricker has been caught out," he told The Daily Beast.
In fact, it's Llewelyn-John and his employer Southern who have been "caught out," Advocates Abroad stated. "Those responsible for the video are extremists whose goal is to incite violent opposition to refugees and those who serve them. The death and rape threats that resulted from their video demonstrate their intentions."
Propaganda like Llewelyn-John's video is a growing problem for asylum-seekers and those who assist them.
"Misleading editing, misrepresenting actions and propaganda are all problematic and shift focus from compelling humanitarian issues," Hilary Weaver, an immigration expert at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told The Daily Beast. “We are all better off if we can keep an open mind, think critically and act thoughtfully and compassionately.”
Advocates Abroad continues to assist asylum-seekers who have fled war and starvation and braved a perilous sea journey for a chance at a new life. “The refugees here have gone through frightening experiences on their way to safety,” Ricker said. "There is no need for them to make up ‘a story.’”