A few weeks ago, when I was going to the town hall of my neighborhood to take part in the census that Romania is struggling to carry out, a man grabbed my arm. He warned me not to tell the interviewer that I live alone or the government would start bringing in Ukrainian refugees to live with me.
It was not the first time that I had heard such nonsense.
On the Ukrainian border in the early days of the war, I saw two stories emerge.
First, I saw tens of thousands of Ukrainians running for their lives. I saw people arriving late at night in freezing temperatures, happy to find shelter after waiting many hours to walk across the Romanian border.
I saw refugees crossing with nothing but a small backpack and a lifeline phone as their only link to those left behind. I Lily
how a Ukrainian telecommunications provider – Kyivstar – offered roaming bonuses to Ukrainian refugees across much of Eastern Europe to help them stay connected and better navigate their adopted countries. I saw volunteers going out of their way to help, offering a hot meal, blankets, hot drinks, medicine, clothes and transportation to other towns.
Everyone, publicly and privately, was trying to participate and help in any way they could.
Then I started noticing the resentment and misinformation that some very vocal Romanians spouted on social media: countless unsourced posts on social media filled with images of luxury cars with Ukrainian license plates , for example, implying that refugees are well off and should not need help.
I kept reading claims that wealthy Ukrainians were waiting to enter Romania, including capable men who were not allowed to leave their country but bribed their way out. (In fact, I personally witnessed the opposite. At the border, I saw women and children dropped off by husbands, fathers and partners who returned to fight. Couples separated and made their farewells through a chain border fence.)
Hundreds of miles away from this reality, social media has been flooded with allegations, such as an unverified personal Facebook account falsely claiming that refugees were giving bribes of $700, $1,000, or $1,500 ( in euros) to leave Ukraine. Some tabloids picked up the trend with clickbait headlines reading “The Ukrainian Scam. How War Refugees Get Rich in Romania”.
The trend has yet to weigh heavily on party politics, but one wonders if it will remain the case. For example, a deputy from a right-wing party, the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), warned
that if large numbers of refugees remain in Romania, they could put a strain on the economy and social services.
The state of the economy is making things worse.
According to the UN
, European countries have taken in more than 6 million Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war, many of whom have made their way to neighboring Eastern Europe. This has generated varying degrees of resentment in places like Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, which are fighting runaway inflation and economic slowdown
. This resentment, seen on social media, stems from an exaggerated sense that refugees receive unfair benefits.
The central message of anti-refugee rhetoric is that Ukrainians are taking resources from the local population in need. Eastern European officials have raised concerns
about the financial strain of hosting so many displaced people – but in the Czech Republic, for example, social media posts falsely claimed that Ukrainian refugees were entitled to around $3,700 a month (for a family of four), which Agence France Presse has demystified
This reaction is not the most dominant: Eastern Europeans have rightly been applauded for welcoming Ukrainians fleeing the war. Investigating in Poland from the end of March to the beginning of May, the Discovery of the Pew Research Center
that 80% were in favor of accepting refugees fleeing war – an increase of 31 percentage points from 2018. But it is particularly worrying that such resentment – even on the fringes of politics – is growing in the East, a resolutely anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian region.
Eastern European countries top of the list
of those who pledge to help Ukraine, in proportion to their own gross domestic product. The anti-refugee misinformation may be an accessory to the welcome mat the region has rolled out, but it’s worrisome nonetheless — in part because of its blatant inaccuracy. Not only do refugees quickly search for work when they arrive in their adopted country, but they prove to be assets to local economies. Poland, as noted by Bloomberg
Ukrainian refugees stimulated a depleted labor market.
These are not just my observations.
In a recent report — “Warm welcome, hidden tensions
“– Christian relief, development and advocacy group World Vision warns that “messages that could stoke anti-refugee tensions are already spreading in Romania, Moldova, Poland and across central and eastern Europe. .” (Again, this contrasts with a largely welcoming attitude in the area – but things could change quickly.)
Without control, things could get worse. We could see an increase in cases of verbal and physical abuse as well as a growing risk of human trafficking, warns World Vision.
As in many crises, populist leaders have everything to gain. A possible beneficiary could also be on the verge of becoming the next president of the Czech Republic: Andrej Babis. The billionaire and populist former Prime Minister is well known
for his anti-refugee positions, which did not prevent him from employing many foreigners
under questionable circumstances in his undertakings. (Babis denied this information.)
Politically, this refugee crisis is quite different from the last one in Europe. In 2015, as Middle Eastern, Afghan and African refugees and migrants poured into Europe, anti-immigrant politics exploded. Now that refugees are arriving from Ukraine, most populist politicians have expressed no resentment.
In Ukraine’s neighboring countries, refugee policy has been tense for much of the past decade. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán opposes the arrival of non-Hungarians; recently, he warned
against interbreeding due to immigration. Also in the context of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa, Poland and Slovakia have resisted the European Union distributing refugees in their countries. At one point, Slovakia stipulated
that he would accept refugees — but only Christians.
In Poland, President Andrzej Duda of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party proposed in 2015
refugees could be “epidemiological risks”. Last November, Duda mobilized soldiers — would have up to 12,000
— at the border with Belarus in order to prevent non-European refugees from entering the country and started building a wall
Belarus being accused of fomenting a crisis.
Now, Duda’s approach to Ukrainian refugees is very different. In a speech to the Ukrainian parliament, Duda reportedly said that Ukrainians are not “refugees” but rather “guests” of Poles, according to a Ukrainian government agency
Even Babis, the controversial former Czech prime minister, avoids attacking Ukrainian refugees. Over the years Babis campaigned
aggressively against migrants and asylum seekers. But on the Ukrainian question, blamed the government
for not having helped the Czech regions better to manage the crisis.
How long this will last is an open question.
Populists are often adept at navigating political crises and, as always, their stance on Ukrainian refugees may be calculated. Anti-Russian sentiment in Central and Eastern Europe has always been very strong, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has only strengthened it further. It would not be beneficial for any politician to go against this sentiment.
That being said, if a worsening economic situation fuels public sentiment that Ukrainian refugees are not carrying their own weight, politicians might change their minds.
What can be done? Organizations working with refugees constantly call for stronger integration. Communication campaigns can demystify false information disseminated on social networks. Educating people about refugees helps bring them closer to the community.
These are just a few things that could help prevent the spread of misinformation, better integrate Ukrainian refugees, and curb populist political backlash.
As at least one activist working with refugees has said, a refugee is someone who has survived and who can create the future. Whether Europe will allow Ukrainian refugees to create that future in their adoptive homes remains to be seen, especially as these countries grapple with economic hardship and an almost inevitable energy crisis this winter.