Disinformation in action against Ukrainian refugees in Eastern Europe

PRAGUE: When Dominika Sokur talks to her children at the playground, she hears sarcastic remarks, which she suspects are the result of disinformation campaigns.

“Whenever we arrive at the square, I hear people say: ‘Oh, here are the Ukrainians, come on,'” says this 41-year-old Czech, married to a Ukrainian, who lives in Holubice, north of Prague.

“Voices are being raised against our supposedly free bus and zoo tickets,” says Ms. Sokur.

His account testifies to hostile reactions towards refugees in certain Eastern European countries, which have also opened their borders to them and continue to help them.

Experts associate this trend with a wave of fake news spreading on social media.

“Even my father, who supports Ukraine and has no pro-Russian sympathy, asks me about the ‘Ukrainian Nazis’. Disinformation is everywhere,” explains this mother.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, 6 million Ukrainians have taken refuge across Europe, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia opened their borders and offered shelter and financial assistance to those fleeing the war.

But runaway inflation, which particularly affects Eastern Europe, is now fueling a climate that is sometimes challenging for refugees.

online misinformation

From Warsaw to Bucharest, social media is awash with outraged posts showing, without context, luxury cars registered in Ukraine and wealthy individuals waiting for their subsidies in front of administrative buildings.

Outraged comments accuse the authorities of supporting Ukrainians at the expense of local populations.

From one country to another, the speeches vary, but they are underpinned by the same message: Ukrainians are stealing “our resources”.

“Refugees are always portrayed as the idle migrant or the health tourist, seeking public benefits and luxury cars,” noted a June report by Czech Elves, a network of volunteers dedicated to monitoring disinformation in the queue.

In Poland, a blog post claimed that Ukrainians were receiving vouchers that poor Poles could not claim.

A Romanian post on Facebook stated without blinking that “90% of refugees belong to the upper classes, those who managed to pay 1,000 to 1,500 euros in bribes to cross the border”.

On the side of the Czech Republic, the country that receives the most refugees in proportion to its population, a post that went viral claimed that a Ukrainian family could accumulate up to 90,000 kroner (3,700 euros) in public aid, a value much higher than the average income of a czech family.

However, contrary to what these speeches posted online suggest, most Ukrainian refugees start looking for work as soon as they arrive in the Czech Republic and accept jobs in construction, healthcare or cleaning. , according to data from the Czech Ministry of Labour.

Far right and Putin

It is difficult to identify the sources of dissemination of anti-Ukrainian propaganda, but it is often carried by reports affiliated with the far right.

The maintenance of anti-Ukrainian sentiment is also a hallmark of Russian propaganda, according to Gesine Schwan, a researcher specializing in the subject of refugees and a member of the German Social Democratic Party.

“Russia excels in the art of distorting an event to generate animosity,” she told AFP.

“Vladimir Putin knows that his war arouses indignation. He therefore tries to justify it by portraying Ukrainians as evil,” says Schwan.

The effects of this propaganda remain limited, but that could change if the economic situation worsens, explains Nikola Horejs of the Institute for Empirical Research STEM.

STEM surveys reveal that Czech solidarity with Ukrainians is in decline, although it remains substantial.

In recent weeks, STEM has counted up to 100,000 fewer express supporters among the 10.7 million Czech citizens.

“People fear that the influx of refugees will ruin local economies,” says Horejs.

“The sphere of disinformation has found a new favorite topic, replacing praise of Putin or denial of war. These voices now claim that governments favor Ukrainians over their own populations,” adds the researcher.

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