Fear and fatigue: Why anti-migrant sentiment in Europe helps Russia

To ensure sustainable support for Ukrainian refugees, Europeans need to find ways to overcome anxieties about other migrant groups

epa10530476 Protesters demonstrate against the UK government’s new Illegal Migration Bill during an anti racism demonstration in central London, Britain, 18 March 2023. Tens of thousands of protesters marched through London to Downing Street calling for an end to the UK’s Illegal Migration Bill. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/ANDY RAIN
Protesters demonstrate against the UK government’s new Illegal Migration Bill during an anti racism demonstration in central London, Britain, 18 March 2023
Image by picture alliance / EPA | ANDY RAIN

A year into Russia’s war on Ukraine, ECFR’s Joanna Hosa and Gabriele Valodskaite warned that the welcome Europeans had extended to Ukrainian refugees may prove fragile. Just a few months later, EU special adviser on Ukraine, Lodewijk Asscher, echoed these concerns, stating in a May 2023 report that “solidarity fatigue” had begun to set in in some member states. Now, as the conflict approaches its second anniversary, the idea of “war fatigue” more broadly has taken its place firmly in the headlines – much to the satisfaction of Russian president Vladimir Putin. At the same time, European countries continue to suffer record inflation and stagnating economies. And a big year for elections across the continent – including to the European Parliament in June – seems set to fuel the toxicity of discussions on migration, as far-right and populist parties aim to turn their strong polling into votes. Europeans need to ensure that their solidarity with Ukrainian refugees does not become collateral damage of the year ahead.

As of November 2023, more than 4 million people who had fled Ukraine remained in the European Union, down from almost 6 million in the early days of the war. Germany hosts the largest number of refugees from Ukraine (around 1.2 million), closely followed by Poland (around 955,000). European publics in general want their countries to continue hosting Ukrainian refugees – but with slightly less enthusiasm than at the start of the war. Polling from eupinions, for instance, found that between March 2022 and September 2023, EU-wide approval for accepting Ukrainian refugees had fallen from 86 per cent to a still-resounding 75 per cent. Even in Poland, the country that saw the largest drop in support over that period, a clear majority (65 per cent) in September 2023 remained in favour of accepting Ukrainian refugees. Other polls, however, particularly those that address funding and financial support, suggest harder attitudes: in one October 2023 survey, for example, more than half of Poles said they would “definitely” or “rather” not provide financial assistance to Ukrainians.

Moreover, according to an August 2022 report from World Vision, Ukrainian refugees in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries – such as Moldova, Romania, Poland, and Slovakia – experienced some anti-migration behaviour and discrimination, even back when European support for Ukrainian refugees was at its highest. In Slovakia, where in 2023 prime minister Robert Fico was elected partially on the back of pro-Russia sentiment, the International Organisation for Migration found that 12 per cent of Ukrainians had encountered discrimination while displaced. This manifested through language barriers when interacting with neighbours, in educational settings or public services, and hostility from the general public. Some respondents also mentioned having been discriminated against in their workplace, or their children being victims of bullying at school. Furthermore, large numbers of Ukrainian domestic workers in Poland face poor or illegal working conditions, a phenomenon that was already common prior to February 2022.

Refugee fatigue is Putin’s expectation; it is also a propaganda tactic – through which the Kremlin builds on European myths and anxieties about migration more broadly to stoke resistance to Ukrainian refugees

This could worsen if the salience of migration increases as populist and far-right parties jostle for attention in the coming months. But it is not only European politicians who benefit from anti-immigrant sentiment in the EU. Refugee fatigue is Putin’s expectation; it is also a propaganda tactic – through which the Kremlin builds on European myths and anxieties about migration more broadly to stoke resistance to Ukrainian refugees. Poland, for example, has been subject to Russian disinformation campaigns that target both economic anxieties and longstanding European narratives of migration as a security threat. These have included false reports on social media of burglaries, assaults, and rapes taking place near the Poland-Ukraine border – as well as claims that Ukrainian refugees were “provided everything for free”. Russian Telegram channels push the message that Ukrainians are “not welcome” in Europe. In his report, Asscher underlines how “the cost of living crisis has hit low- and medium-income families in host societies and created a context in which Russian propaganda could be more successful.”

To counter this, Europeans will need to address underlying anxieties about refugees in general, which provide the feeding ground for disinformation that targets Ukrainians. Given concerns about economic support for refugees, this should involve more transparency and communication on funding. To fight disinformation, national governments need to provide clear and compelling information on how much financial support Ukrainian and other refugees are receiving in their country, as well as the proportion of public spending that represents. Campaigns and analysis, such as through the EUvsDisinfo project, could help hammer home that the amount invested in refugees is very small in the context of overall outlays.

Moreover, the EU and its member states need to invest in infrastructure to benefit both host communities and refugees. For instance, anti-refugee sentiment has boiled over in Ireland in recent months, in part due to far-right exploitation of the only too real housing crisis in the country. Member states should focus on promoting investment in health care, transport, and other public goods, especially in poor and rural areas – where, for example in Germany and Poland, far-right parties are paying close attention to disgruntled farmers and agricultural workers. This would help foster development and economic activity that benefits everyone, making communities more resilient, which in turn could reduce tensions with all refugee groups and promote a more inclusive environment. 

Finally, the EU could promote integration projects within its member states and work alongside these initiatives to support their functioning and effectiveness. World Vision’s “Damara Children for Peacebuilding” initiative aims to re-integrate children rescued from armed groups in the Central African Republic via projects that focus on spaces for mutual learning and support. This could provide the foundations for a model of “integrative spaces” in key areas of European countries, adapted to the needs and situations of refugees and host communities. Projects such as this bring high-level politics to the streets, helping to counter the anti-elite sentiment and disillusionment with ‘establishment’ politicians that populist propaganda foments. They also build empathy. In these spaces, with local people and refugees engaging as equals, European countries could begin to provide their populations with an antidote to the politics of fear around migration.

Ukrainian refugees still enjoy high levels of support across the EU – but this appears to be waning. As election campaigns heat up, European policymakers need to ensure the Kremlin’s claims that Ukrainians are “not welcome” in Europe remain disinformation. This will involve addressing the fear at the root of that narrative and the basis by which right-wing and populist parties exploit anti-migration sentiment towards refugees from Africa and the Middle East. This year cannot become ‘a race to the bottom’ in the treatment of refugees – for the sake of solidarity with the EU’s Ukrainian allies and to avoid playing into Putin’s hands, but also to stand a chance of applying the lessons Europeans should have learnt through the success of that solidarity to other refugee flows.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Communications Officer

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