The risk of ‘refugee fatigue’: Three ways European leaders can support Ukrainians fleeing the war

To counter Russian disinformation and take on populist parties, European politicians should do more to shape the debate around Ukrainian refugees in Europe

A scene from the Palanca-Maiaki-Udobnoe border crossing point, between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine on 1 March 2022. People flee the military offensive in Ukraine, seeking refuge in Moldova or transiting the country on their way to Romania and other EU countries.

As of 1 March 2022, more than half a million Ukrainians, a vast majority of whom are women and girls, have fled their homes and sought refuge in neighboring countries. At least 160,000 people have been internally displaced across Ukraine. Between 24 – 28 February, 71,359 Ukrainian citizens have entered Moldova and 33,173 of those who arrived have left for a third country. Over 280,000 people have fled to Poland, 94,000 to Hungary; 74,000 in Romania, 30,000 in Slovakia; tens of thousands in other European counties.

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Photo: UN Women/Aurel Obreja
A scene from the Palanca-Maiaki-Udobnoe border crossing point, between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine on 1 March 2022
Image by UN Women

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, European countries have made tremendous efforts to support refugees. They are currently hosting an estimated 7.9 million people who have fled the conflict. A total of 4.7 million have registered under the European Union’s temporary protection directive, which allows refugees to live, work, study, and access the full range of benefits in their host countries. Alongside this, many EU citizens have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes.

Yet, as the war shows no sign of ending, governments prepare for a long war, and Europeans struggle with soaring prices, refugee fatigue is beginning to set in. It has even turned into acts of outright hostility and demonstrations over the cost of living crisis. A new wave of refugees escaping a harsh winter and the impact of Russia’s energy terrorism could sharpen feelings further, eventually leading to more protests and anti-refugee or anti-EU parties doing well in elections.

European leaders have largely kept a low profile on the issue. Yet while they implement refugee-friendly policies, they are overlooking the need to maintain public support for choices over Ukrainians’ access to labour markets and social benefits. This vacuum risks being filled by disinformation about refugees supposedly receiving preferential treatment to the detriment of local residents. Indeed, Russia’s disinformation machine is already hard at work pouring such falsehoods into social media. The Kremlin has a clear interest in dividing European societies and turning public opinion not only against those fleeing the war, but against supporting Ukraine altogether.

European governments need to take control of the narrative on Ukrainian refugees before the messages of populist parties and Russian disinformation campaigns go mainstream. If, for instance, the head of Germany’s main centre-right party, Friedrich Merz, is able to accuse Ukrainian refugees of “welfare tourism” (a comment for which he later apologised), it hurts not only refugees but also undermines EU policy and hands a win to Russia’s trolls and propagandists.

Political leaders should address this question in three main ways.

1. Shore up public support

Leaders should work to show that help for refugees is not to EU citizens’ detriment. They should start by providing clear information about how much financial support refugees are receiving, what portions of this come from national funds and how much from the EU, and the ways in which the support affects EU nationals. Such analysis will show that it is a small amount compared to the totality of public spending. Governments need to be proactive about this, such as by embarking on an information campaign. They could cooperate with President Volodymyr Zelensky to produce social media content to inform viewers about the daily lives and needs of refugees. They should also ensure they create space for dialogue in which citizens can express their concerns. They could use this space to underline what is at stake: making sure that Europeans understand the gravity of war and the reasons for helping Ukrainians; that part of countering Russia’s aggression means assisting the Ukrainian population in numerous ways, including within EU states.

2. Share positive stories of migration

Migration is already highly politicised and all too controversial in Europe. But the EU needs migration – from Ukraine and elsewhere. As well as upholding the moral case for supporting Ukrainian refugees, European leaders can also point to the benefits the new arrivals can bring in terms of the EU’s economy. For example, they could highlight that many Ukrainian refugees have tertiary education or sought-after skills and could therefore help fill labour shortages across various sectors, including in the hospitality and food industries. Communications should also focus on the success stories of Ukrainians who have already been working in the EU for some time. Indeed, Ukrainian refugees often stress that they do not want to be victims in their host countries; they want to stand on their own two feet and contribute to the community. Amplifying Ukrainians’ voices in this way would provide a powerful counterpoint to the attack lines already circulating online.

3. Find new ways to fight disinformation

The EU’s current approach to fighting Russian disinformation is too reactive. The bloc largely pursues a ‘debunking’ method of fact-checking individual stories online – which, naturally, comes only after a false claim has begun to circulate. Initiatives such as EUvsDisinfo, a key project of the European External Action Service, illustrate this approach. In 2022, it regularly exposed the messages the Kremlin is feeding into the European sphere, ranging from denying war crimes to vilifying Ukrainian refugees. Nevertheless, such activities fail to effectively prevent disinformation from either entering or shaping the public discourse. While fact-checking activities are crucial, the EU is missing out on more pre-emptive strategies, such as digital skills training for people who could be susceptible to false information. The EU cannot possibly keep up with the immense Russian propaganda effort through ‘debunking’ alone, not least as it only has a handful of people tasked with responding to the Kremlin’s firehose of falsehood.

The EU cannot possibly keep up with the immense Russian propaganda effort through ‘debunking’ alone

Steps in the right direction include the EU’s ban on Moscow-funded media channels RT and Sputnik from its territory, which helps stop a significant amount of the Kremlin’s propaganda from entering the public sphere. However, such outlets remain able to exploit loopholes in the ban. A more systematic and long-term approach is needed. For example, in 2021 the European Media and Information Fund supported numerous projects intended to combat disinformation by deploying strategies ranging from the use of artificial intelligence to digital competence training. It reported that interest in its funding programme was overwhelming (the total sum requested was triple that budgeted), illustrating the lack of financial support for media literacy programmes and research on combating disinformation in Europe. The EU should also increase financial support for independent fact-checking and monitoring activities while also working to ingrain media literacy training in European educational systems and other vulnerable groups that lack digital skills.

The winter is far from over and Vladimir Putin will still have high hopes he can turn the season to his advantage. He is banking on continual air strikes and blackouts to break Ukrainians’ will, high prices to weaken European resolve, and a new wave of refugees to seriously erode sympathy for Ukraine. European leaders should not allow the Kremlin to instrumentalise refugees. Instead, they need to take responsibility for shaping the narrative, and soon.

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


Programme Coordinator, Wider Europe programme

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