Ukrainians at riskfrom anti-refugee tensions in host countries, report warns
Ukrainian refugees are likely to become victims of rising tensions and disinformation campaigns in their host countries, a report has warned.
False reports exaggerating how much aid refugees receive compared with local people, as well as linking refugees with violent crime and political extremism, could cause a breakdown in relations with local communities, the charity World Vision said.
In its report, Warm Welcomes, Lurking Tensions, the humanitarian organisation said anti-refugee messaging was already spreading on social media and “niche media outlets” in neighbouring countries.
About 8.8 million people, mainly women, children and elderly people, have left Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on 24 February, with many making their way to border countries such as Romania, Moldova and Poland.
“Messaging that could stoke anti-refugee tensions is already being spread in Romania, Moldova, Poland and across central and eastern Europe,” the report said. “Whilst not a major issue yet, tensions are beginning to develop in some host countries.
“Children may face risks such as verbal and physical abuse between refugee and host communities, human trafficking and more as early as February 2023.
“The international community needs to act now in order to prevent the situation deteriorating to dangerous levels like in Lebanon and Bangladesh.”
The report’s lead author, Charles Lawley, an advocacy, policy and external engagement senior adviser at World Vision, said disinformation campaigns would change attitudes if misreporting was allowed to continue unchallenged.
He said: “Whilst the disinformation campaigns have, thus far, been largely unsuccessful as solidarity with refugees from the host community remains strong, if it goes unchecked it will continue to worsen resentment towards refugees which we are seeing is starting to materialise.
“In contexts like Lebanon, which has a considerable number of Syrian refugees, and Bangladesh, which has most of the world’s Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, disinformation went largely unchecked and became mainstream and has added to the extremely high tensions in those contexts.”
The falsehoods being spread about Ukrainian refugees include exaggerating the financial support they are able to access, and incorrect claims of antisocial or illegal activity. There were also unfounded reports of local children being thrown out of hospitals and replaced by children from Ukraine, Lawley said.
“Our case studies show a pattern which the Ukraine refugee influx is largely following,” he added, saying the initial response from the host community was “solidarity and hospitable”. But after a six- to 12-month period, the warm welcomes started to cool.
“There are no obvious reasons why the contexts like Moldova and Romania, for example, would be exempt. When you consider how the global cost of living crisis is impacting everyone, we would argue that we expect tensions to develop soon if action is not taken.”
Moldova in particular has felt the strain since the outbreak of war in neighbouring Ukraine. Europe’s poorest country has accommodated about 100,000 refugees, the most per capita in Europe.
The numbers are equivalent to about 5% of the population, in a country where inflation is at 27% and the country’s almost total reliance on Russia and Belarus for gas has led to a fuel crisis.
The report sets out a number of recommendations needed in order to ensure Ukrainian refugees do not suffer the same fate as others, such as Syrians who have been left displaced in Lebanon since civil war broke out in 2011.
Local infrastructure should be improved for all communities, communication campaigns promoting coexistence and education about refugees, and opportunities for host communities and Ukrainian refugees, should be encouraged, the report said.
“There are many valuable learnings governments and humanitarian responders alike in countries hosting large numbers of refugees from Ukraine can take from Lebanon, Chile, Bangladesh, Kenya and Uganda,” it said.
“The distress of sudden displacement should not be compounded by facing negativity from the communities accommodating them.
“If refugees in places like Poland, like refugees in Uganda, are immediately able to settle, take up employment, access public benefits such as healthcare and education, and can start their own businesses, then it has a significant impact on social cohesion.”