Special Project 17:13 04 Jun 2024

Refugees shouldn't be seen as a crisis: Why and how to write about Ukrainians abroad

Rubryka attended the Lviv Media Forum, Eastern and Central Europe’s most prominent media conference, which marked the tenth anniversary this year. Our reporters visited discussions with Ukrainian and foreign journalists, who talked about why refugee stories need to stay relevant and how Russian propaganda abroad works against Ukrainians.

What's the problem?

Refugees as a topic for Russian propaganda

Since Russia started its full-scale war against Ukraine in February 2022, more than six million Ukrainians have left their homes and become refugees. The invasion caused one of the biggest migration crises in Europe since World War II. The large influx of people has been challenging for the social and economic systems of the host countries.

Russian propaganda took advantage of this situation and started discrediting Ukrainians abroad. It spreads narratives suggesting that refugees pose a significant threat to the welfare and integrity of host countries. These Russian disinformation campaigns led to an increase in xenophobic attitudes and prejudices and social tension among locals, making integration for Ukrainians harder.

"Recently, we've seen a rise in hatred toward Ukrainians in European countries. Russian propaganda depicts them as aggressive Nazis who don't want peace. They push narratives that Ukrainians don't want to work, learn the language, or integrate into society, painting them as lazy and unwanted migrants," says Radio Liberty journalist Maria Horban. "Moreover, the propaganda emphasizes that Ukrainians come in expensive cars and still seek social support, burdening the host countries' budgets. This often becomes a topic for manipulation among European politicians.

Meanwhile, migrants in Poland paid more in taxes than they received in state aid."

Журналістка Радіо Свобода Марія Горбань

Radio Liberty journalist Maria Horban. Photo by Lviv Media Forum

Horban adds that integration into European host countries also raised many questions among Ukrainians. Lack of information sometimes led them to rely on unverified sources. For example, issues with children being taken by social services also became a target for Russian propaganda.

"There was information spreading online that Ukrainians shouldn't go to the EU because their children would be taken away and not returned," Maria Horban explains. "At the time, the Ukrainian government didn't respond properly, citing only a few cases. Russia, however, claimed that such situations happened to thousands of Ukrainian children. It wasn't until June 2023 that it was revealed there were over 200 cases. So, all this time, people might have been getting their information mostly from Russian propaganda due to a lack of official sources from the Ukrainian government or other European countries." 

Jörg Lau, journalist and international correspondent for the German newspaper Die Zeit, also sees significant Russian propaganda influence, which manipulates migration and refugee issues to affect European politics. One narrative is that tens of thousands of Ukrainian men of military age are in Germany and don't want to fight for their country, questioning the need to support Ukraine and provide military aid.

"Pro-Russian parties twist migration issues to promote their political interests, claiming that Ukrainians have decided winning the war is impossible, so Germany should be prudent and stop helping Ukraine. This narrative aligns with the Kremlin's agenda to halt Western support," says Jörg Lau.

Німецький журналіст і міжнародний кореспондент видання

German journalist and international correspondent for Die Zeit, Jörg Lau. Photo by Lviv Media Forum

What's the solution?

Writing stories and explaining context

The war in Ukraine remains relevant, meaning the number of refugees will continue to grow. More Ukrainians with various skills will come to the EU and other European states, potentially boosting the countries' economies and representing Ukraine's interests. It's crucial to change the approach to the topic of refugees and stop seeing them as a crisis, says Spanish journalist and expert on gender, migration, and human rights Patricia Macías.

"We need to focus on a refugee system that has to be integrated into local policies. Right now, it's failing. We must make it work properly and improve it," says Macías. "All human history is about migration, and it should be safe. Refugees and migrants shouldn't be seen by society as victims or a humanitarian threat. As journalists, we must create the right narratives to reduce social tension."

Дискусія LMF про біженців

Spanish journalist and gender, migration, and human rights expert Patricia Macías. Photo by Lviv Media Forum

Migration policy faces many problems affecting the successful integration of refugees into European countries, says Jörg Lau. One example is the story of a man from Iraq who wanted to work as a dental assistant but couldn't get the necessary documents for asylum.

"He was a great candidate needed by the German healthcare system, but he didn't get the right documents. His asylum application had issues, so he had to leave," says the journalist. "This is one example of how the system failed—a perfect candidate who didn't get the job. People are interested in such stories, and this one was popular among readers." 

Journalists should write more profiles of Ukrainians, highlighting their stories, integration experiences, and the problems they face because refugees temporarily or permanently become part of the society in the country that hosts them.

"I believe we need to hear more voices, especially success stories, such as those about starting new projects. We need to show that Ukrainian refugees have the right to be part of European society," says Radio Liberty journalist Horban. "For example, in Ireland, they can be elected to city councils, allowing them to speak about their community's issues." 

These kinds of stories help debunk Russian narratives aimed at discrediting Ukraine. Highlighting the successful integration of Ukrainians into European society emphasizes their contributions and positive impact, countering propaganda claims that they are "unwanted" or "unfit."

Reports should focus on the fact that Ukrainians are not just numbers or statistics but real people with their own stories, emotions, and needs that need attention. They are forced to leave their homes in search of safety and opportunities. Each emigration story is a tragedy with deep reasons. It's essential to bring across that refugees leave everything familiar not by choice but due to unfavorable circumstances.

"Ukrainians are not just looking for a better life. They have specific reasons for leaving their country. So, it's important not just to tell people's stories but to explain the context and conditions that forced them to do so," says German journalist Lau.

Дискусія LMF про біженців

Maria Horban and Jörg Lau. Photo by Lviv Media Forum

Journalists should also emphasize that the main reason Ukrainians become refugees is the search for safety, which they lack in their own country due to the war unleashed by Russia. Many have lost their homes and must seek refuge in other countries to protect themselves and their loved ones.

"European politicians need to understand that if they want more refugees to return home, they need to support Ukraine and help it win the war," Jörg Lau stresses.

How to make it work?

Writing stories with emphasis

European media is familiar with the topic of refugees and migration, but audience interest in it is gradually waning. Since most stories are similar, journalists need to find interesting angles.

"In recent years, audiences don't want to read news about suffering. They are already tired from their own traumas and crises. So journalists need to find ways to collaborate with people and find original ways to attract attention," Patricia Macías shares.

Maria Horban agrees, saying there is always something unique in refugee stories that can interest and move readers. Proper emphasis can give a new dimension to a familiar topic and re-engage the audience. This approach raises the discussed topic to a new level and helps stimulate dialogue and understanding of the difficulties refugees and migrants face.

"Imagine a story like this: Mariupol under occupation, the city in ruins, and people forced to leave their homes, risking their lives. Among them is a woman who, despite the danger, takes on the responsibility to preserve a symbol of national pride — the Ukrainian flag. She hides it in children's clothes to bypass Russian and Belarusian checkpoints, risking being caught and facing serious consequences. With such emphasis, this text already stands out among similar evacuation stories," says the Radio Liberty journalist.

Дискусія LMF про біженців

Speakers at the panel. Photo by Lviv Media Forum

Publishing refugee stories makes Ukrainians visible in society, helping them overcome specific barriers that often separate them from locals. Through personal stories, people learn about the real-life circumstances, challenges, and achievements of Ukrainians, helping to dismantle Russian narratives. This approach works much better than when journalists create special reports exposing propaganda.

The media can also serve as a platform for expressing the problems and needs of refugees, encouraging necessary support from fellow citizens, government, and non-government organizations.

"When refugees face a problem, local media are often not ready to discuss it because issues like obtaining social assistance or enrolling a child in kindergarten can seem insurmountable," said Maria Horban. "The media should understand that it is worth publishing such difficult stories. I had a story about a father traveling from Ukraine to Belgium for his taken-away child. Many people later asked for his contacts because they found themselves in similar circumstances. It's important for journalists not only to provide step-by-step instructions but also to allow discussion and questions. This builds a connection." 

In conclusion of the panel, the speakers agree that the media should not fear complex stories and should pay more attention to Ukrainians and their integration experiences. Highlighting real refugee stories with significant emphasis will attract attention and help break stereotypes imposed by Russia. This will also encourage Europeans to improve migration policies and provide more assistance.


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