Disinformation shifting views on Ukrainian refugees across Eastern Europe

Ukrainian refugees at an aid centre in Warsaw. European nations have taken in almost six million Ukrainian refugees. PHOTO: AFP

PRAGUE (AFP) - When Ms Dominika Sokur speaks to her children in the playground, she overhears hostile reactions that she believes are being fuelled by disinformation.

"When we come to the playground, people go: 'Ah, the Ukrainians have come. Let's get out of here'," said Ms Sokur, 41, a Czech married to a Ukrainian who lives in the town of Holubice north of Prague.

"I have overheard them complaining that we get to ride buses and visit the zoo for free," she said.

The attitude illustrates rising resentment against Ukrainian refugees in parts of Europe that experts link to false social media posts about Ukrainian refugees and the benefits they receive.

"Even my 65-year-old dad, who is not pro-Russian and supports Ukraine, is asking me what's all this talk about Ukrainian Nazis. The disinformation is simply everywhere," Ms Sokur said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, European nations have taken in almost six million refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Countries including the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia opened their borders, homes and wallets to help those fleeing the war. But runaway inflation, especially rampant in eastern Europe, has created a sense of economic dread that feeds disinformation portraying refugees as ingrates syphoning off resources from needy locals.

Disinformation across borders

From Warsaw to Bucharest, social media has been flooded with images of luxury cars with Ukrainian licence plates and unsourced, anonymous claims that wealthy-looking Ukrainians have been spotted standing in line for government aid.

Comments express resentment and anger against the politicians supposedly helping Ukrainians instead of taking care of their own population. The online claims vary from country to country, but they carry the same underlying message: Ukrainians are taking resources away "from us".

"Refugees are always mentioned in the context of non-working immigrants waiting for benefits, luxury cars and so-called health or benefit tourism," the Czech Elves, a network of several hundred volunteers monitoring online disinformation, said in their June report.

In Poland, a recent article on a blog known to spread disinformation misleadingly claimed that Ukrainian refugees were getting free shopping vouchers while needy Poles were left empty-handed.

In Romania, a Facebook post said sweepingly that "90 per cent of those who cross the border are from the rich class, those who can afford to give a 1,000-euro (S$1,417) to 1,500-euro bribe to Ukrainian customs to cross over to us".

In the Czech Republic, which has accepted the biggest number of refugees per capita, a viral post falsely stated that a Ukrainian family of four can collect as much as 90,000 koruna (about S$5,135) per month in aid - far more than the income of an average Czech family.

Contrary to stereotypes shared on social media, most Ukrainian refugees start looking for work almost immediately after they reach the Czech Republic and often accept manual jobs in construction, health care or as cleaning personnel, according to data from the Czech labour office.

Economic squeeze fuels resentment

It is difficult to identify the main spreaders of such disinformation targeting Ukrainian refugees, but such posts often feature on accounts linked to far-right parties.

Whipping up anti-Ukrainian sentiment bears the hallmarks of Russian propaganda, according to Mr Gesine Schwan, political science professor and former presidential candidate for Germany's Social Democratic Party who has written extensively about refugees.

"Russia is extremely good at taking something that happened and misinterpreting it in such a way that it creates resentment," Mr Schwan said. "(President Vladimir) Putin knows that the war he's waging has provoked moral outrage. So he is trying to justify it by painting Ukrainians as the morally deficient ones."

So far, the impact of such propaganda and disinformation has been limited but that can change quickly as economic woes worsen, said Mr Nikola Horejs, the director of international affairs at the STEM sociological research institute in Prague.

STEM's research shows that support for Ukraine, while still relatively high, has been rapidly decreasing in the past few weeks, he said, falling by as much as 100,000 people per week among the Czech Republic's 10.7 million people.

"There is a great fear among people that this exodus will ruin our countries economically," Mr Horejs said. "The disinformation scene has adjusted. Their narrative is no longer that Putin is good or that the war doesn't exist; the main theme now is that the governments are not addressing people's economic problems, but helping Ukrainians instead."

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