Ukrainian Refugees: Prebunking 5 Common Migration Myths
By Catesby Holmes
As Ukrainians flee Russia’s military invasion and bombardment of their country, they are largely being met with compassion in neighboring countries and in the media. But recent history makes clear that displaced people in a mass migration, even if initially viewed with empathy, often become the targets of resentment, discrimination, even cruelty. Already Black Ukrainians, Muslims, and Africans living in Ukraine have faced discrimination on their journeys to safety. Some have reported being asked for ID at checkpoints where white Ukrainians pass unquestioned, prevented from boarding trains, or being harassed by right-wing Polish extremists.
Global public attention during refugee crises is often short-lived, and research shows it fades well before refugees’ exodus ends. As the experience of refugees on the Greek isle of Lesbos in 2015 demonstrated, patience in once-welcoming host communities can run thin. Misunderstandings about what it means to be a refugee, as when people erroneously see forced migration as a choice, can fuel anti-refugee sentiment.
So can disinformation about migrants, spread intentionally for political purposes or financial gain.
During the Mediterranean migrant crisis in 2016, for example, fact-checkers documented 162 cases of viral “fake news” about migrants spread on social media, in newspapers and in right-wing politicians’ statements that year. These efforts, which occurred in countries with populist resistance to immigration, included doctored images purporting to show Muslim migrants committing street violence or terrorism. In the UK, Syrian refugees were characterized as "covert Jihadists," posing a threat to national security. Disinformation about Central Americans, much of it originating with then-U.S. President Donald Trump, dogged the 2018 migrant caravans traveling to the U.S. border. These media manipulation campaigns turn desperate people into a political party platform, a spectacle, a video game, a scandalizing headline.
Wherever migrants come from or arrive to, similar pernicious myths tend to resurface. People demonize refugees, question their authenticity, and portray them as a cultural threat or economic drain. The false claims spread, stoked by nationalism, economic anxiety, terrorism fears, xenophobia, racism and religious bias – or a mix of these factors.
Because Ukraine is in Eastern Europe, its refugee crisis may not trigger the same set of responses as recent crises, when disinformation drew on racist and colonialist views of the Global South. But as the war in Ukraine grinds on, and Ukrainians continue to arrive in Poland and other European countries where debates around migration are already controversial, experts on migration predict anti-refugee sentiment will rise. Disinformation will then find fertile ground.
To preempt and “prebunk” such disinformation, the Technology and Social Change Team at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center documents five common migrant myths that may be used against Ukrainian refugees. Each myth in the list links to articles where the allegation was spread and to the research that debunks it.
Refugees versus migrants
Ⓧ Myth #1: “These people aren’t really refugees.” - Quote from “Tensions run high in Rome's suburbs as Italy struggles with migration crisis,” The Guardian, July 26, 2014
Ⓧ Myth #2: They’re “inviting illegals in.” - Quote from “Hundreds protest Scottsdale hotel turned holding facility for families seeking asylum,” Arizona Republic, June 2, 2021
Refugees worldwide are frequently accused of faking their plight. One viral example came from conspiracy theorist and QAnon booster Janet Ossebard, who claimed in a documentary series that has been watched over 1.3 million times that Central American migrants traveling to the U.S. in groups for safety in 2018 were paid actors.
The “crisis actor” accusation is a favored tactic in conspiracist circles. By suggesting victims of atrocities are hired actors, it asserts real crises – such as mass shootings in the U.S. – are events fabricated for liberal political ends. Already Ukrainian refugees are facing similar false claims, as online hoaxes seek to convince Europeans that these war victims are actually “crisis actors” hired to vilify Russia.
A more common myth is that people are not fleeing persecution or violence but voluntarily left home to settle in a wealthier country. Britain’s interior minister in 2019 questioned whether people crossing the English Channel from France to the U.K. were “real, genuine” refugees, suggesting they were economic migrants.
But “refugee” is an official status, designated by immigration authorities after a rigorous assessment. Under international law, refugees are "individuals who are outside their country of origin and who are unable or unwilling to return there owing to serious threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.” Only people who meet those criteria receive refugee status.
Most, if not all, Ukrainians fleeing the war – the majority of whom are women and children owing to a conscription law that prevents men from leaving the country – would be considered refugees.
The 1951 United Nations Convention Related to the Status of Refugees, a global agreement written after the horrors of World War II, says people deemed refugees are entitled to protection abroad because their own country cannot protect them. Every country that signed that Convention and its 1967 Protocol – which includes all Western Europe and the U.S. – committed not to return refugees to a place where they face persecution or death.
Refugees and the economy
Ⓧ Myth #4: “They get all the help and [we] get nothing....Many don’t want to work.” - Quotes from “Viaje a la Castilla y León de Vox,” El País, Feb. 19, 2022
Despite political talking points, viral memes and tropes that refugees and migrants will hurt the economy and take opportunity away from citizens, research consistently shows that refugees contribute to the economy in communities where they settle.
In the United States, a draft 2017 government report rejected by the Trump administration found that refugees brought in $63 billion more revenue to federal, state, and local governments than they cost between 2005 and 2014. A 30-year study conducted across Europe similarly showed refugees “give back more than they receive.”
Those studies look at resettled refugees with legal status giving them the right to work. During migration crises, new arrivals are often housed in camps or shelters, and provided temporary food, care, and assistance getting resettled. Refugee centers are complex ventures, usually jointly administered and financed by national governments, the UN refugee agency, and humanitarian groups like the Red Cross. Such operations are chronically underfunded.
It is accurate that when conflicts are protracted, and refugee crises prolonged, refugee camps can become a challenge for poorer countries. When governments are unable or unwilling to continue financing refugee camps, the UN and aid groups continue to operate them but as budgets drop services may decline, leading to unsanitary conditions, slow resettlement, and governance issues. When this happens, locals in communities hosting camps may experience competition for low-wage work, environmental degradation, trauma, and overwhelmed hospitals. Experts find that funding, good communications, thoughtful policy and inclusive practices can mitigate these short-term harms.
Immigration and crime
Ⓧ Myth #5: “They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.” - Quote from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign launch speech, New York City, June 16, 2015
From former president Donald Trump’s repeated claims that asylum-seekers at the southern border of the U.S. were “rapists” to memes alleging that Syrians in Germany are terrorists, refugees are frequently portrayed as criminals.
That fear is an old one, and for a century, experts have studied the relationship between immigration and crime. Studies conducted in the U.S. repeatedly show that immigrants do not commit more crime than U.S.-born citizens; indeed, U.S. cities with a high immigrant population – which would include refugees – have lower rates of certain crimes. The UK reports similar findings. Research from Germany finds that not only is there no relationship between refugees and crime but also that locals in areas with a sharp influx in refugees perceived a rise in crime where there was none. Researchers studying Venezuelan asylum-seekers seeking refuge in Colombia found they were more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.