Editor’s Note: Cristian Gherasim is an analyst, consultant and journalist focusing on Eastern and Central European affairs. Follow him on Twitter @Crstn_Gherasim. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
A few weeks ago, as I was heading into my local town hall to take part in the census that Romania has been struggling to complete, a man grabbed me by the arm. He warned me not to tell the interviewer I live alone – otherwise the government would start bringing Ukrainian refugees to live in my house.
It wasn’t the first time I was hearing this nonsense.
Despite Romania winning international praise for warmly welcoming those fleeing war in neighboring Ukraine, disinformation reared its ugly head quickly after the war began.
On the Ukrainian border in the first days of the war, I saw two narratives emerge.
First, I saw tens of thousands of Ukrainians running for their lives. I saw people arriving late at night, in freezing temperatures, glad to take any shelter after having waited many hours to cross the border into Romania on foot.
I saw refugees cross with nothing but a small backpack and a lifesaving phone as their only link to those left behind. I read how a Ukrainian telecom provider – Kyivstar – offered roaming bonuses to Ukrainian refugees across much of Eastern Europe to help keep them connected and more able to navigate their adoptive countries. I saw volunteers doing everything to help, offering a warm meal, blankets, hot drinks, medicine, clothing and transportation to other cities.
Everyone, publicly and privately, was trying to pitch in and help in whatever way possible.
Then, I started noticing the resentment and disinformation that a few very vocal Romanians gushed out on social media: countless unsourced social-media posts packed with images of luxury cars with Ukrainian license plates, for instance, implying refugees are well-to-do and shouldn’t need help.
I kept reading claims that wealthy Ukrainians were waiting to enter Romania, including able men barred from leaving their country but bribing 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 parted and said their goodbyes through a chain-linked border fence.)
Hundreds of miles away from this reality, social media became awash with claims like one unverified personal Facebook account that falsely stated refugees were giving $700, $1000 or $1500 bribes (in euros) to leave Ukraine. Some tabloid media picked up on the trend with click-bait titles reading “The Ukrainian scam. How war refugees are getting rich in Romania.”
The trend has not yet weighed heavily on party politics, but one wonders if that will remain the case. For instance, one lawmaker with a right-wing party, The Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), warned that if large numbers of refugees remain in Romania, they could strain 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 war began, many going to neighboring Eastern Europe. That has generated varying degrees of resentment in places such as Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, which are battling runaway inflation and an economic downturn. That resentment, seen on social media, stems from an inflated sense that refugees are receiving unjust benefits.
The central message of anti-refugee rhetoric is that Ukrainians are taking resources away from local needy population. Eastern European officials have raised concerns about the financial strain of welcoming so many displaced people – but in the Czech Republic, for instance, social-media posts falsely claimed Ukrainian refugees were eligible to receive about $3,700 per month (for a family of four), which Agence France Press has debunked.
This reaction is not the dominant one: Eastern Europeans have rightly won plaudits for welcoming Ukrainians fleeing war. Surveying in Poland from late March to early May, the Pew Research Center found that 80% supported accepting refugees fleeing war—a 31-percentage-point uptick from 2018. But it is particularly worrisome that such resentment – even on political fringes – is unfolding in Eastern Europe, a region staunchly anti-Russian and supportive of Ukraine.
Eastern European countries top the list of those committing aid to Ukraine, as a share of their own gross domestic product. Anti-refugee disinformation may be a sideshow to the welcome mat the region has rolled out, but it is disturbing nonetheless – in part because of its clear inaccuracy. Not only do refugees quickly look for work when arriving in their adoptive countries, they prove to be assets to local economies. In Poland, as Bloomberg has noted, Ukrainian refugees have boosted a depleted labor market.
These aren’t merely my observations.
In a recent report – “Warm Welcomes, Lurking Tensions“– the Christian relief, development and advocacy group World Vision warns, “Messaging that could stoke anti-refugee tensions is already being spread in Romania, Moldova, Poland and across Central and Eastern Europe.” (Again, this stands in contrast with a broadly welcoming attitude in the region – but things could change quickly.)
Left unchecked, things could get much worse. We could see increased instances of verbal and physical abuse as well as a rising risk of human trafficking, World Vision warns.
As with many crises, populist leaders stand to gain. One possible beneficiary could be also 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-refugees positions, which didn’t keep him from employing many foreigners under dubious circumstances at his companies. (Babis has denied that reporting.)
Politically, this refugee crisis looks quite different from Europe’s last. In 2015, as Middle Eastern, Afghan and African refugees and migrants poured into Europe, anti-immigrant politics surged. Now that refugees are arriving from Ukraine, most populist politicians have not expressed resentment.
In countries neighboring Ukraine, refugee politics have been fraught for much of the last decade. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán famously opposes the arrival of non-Hungarians; recently, he warned against racial mixing as a result of immigration. Again in the context of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa, Poland and Slovakia have resisted allowing the European Union to apportion refugees to their countries. At one point, Slovakia stipulated that it would accept refugees – but only Christians.
In Poland, President Andrzej Duda of the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) suggested in 2015 that refugees might be “epidemiological risks.” Last November, Duda mobilized soldiers – reportedly as many as 12,000 – at the border with Belarus in order to prevent non-European refugees from entering the country and began building a wall, as Belarus stood accused of instigating a crisis.
Now, Duda’s approach toward Ukrainian refugees is very different. In a speech in front of the Ukrainian parliament, Duda reportedly said Ukrainians are not “refugees” but rather “guests,” to Poles, according to a Ukrainian government agency.
Even Babis, the controversial former Czech prime minister, shies away from attacking Ukrainian refugees. Over the years Babis has campaigned aggressively against migrants and asylum seekers. But on the Ukrainian issue, has blamed the government for failing to better help Czech regions to manage the crisis.
How long this will last is an open question.
Populists are often adept at navigating political crises, and as always, it’s possible their stance on Ukrainian refugees is calculated. Anti-Russian sentiment in Central and Eastern Europe has historically been very strong, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has only consolidated it further. It would not benefit any politician to go against that sentiment.
That being said, if a worsening economic situation fuels public sentiment that Ukrainian refugees aren’t carrying their own weight, politicians could change their tunes.
What can be done? Organizations working with refugees consistently call for stronger integration. Communication campaigns can debunk false information spread cross social media. Educating people about refugees helps bring them closer into the community.
These are only but a few things that might help prevent the spread of disinformation, integrate Ukrainian refugees better and curb the populist political reaction.
As at least one activist working with refugees has said, a refugee is someone who survived and who can create the future. It remains to be seen if Europe will allow Ukrainian refugees to create that future in their adoptive homes – especially as those countries are squeezed by economic woes and an almost inevitable energy crisis this winter.