by Anna Poludenko-Young
From “health hazards” to “an opportunity to boost the national economy”—this is the broad range of speculations Ukrainian politicians are using to explain what can happen when Ukraine opens its doors to refugees from countries such as Syria.
“It is a crime to take refugees from other countries if your own country is at war and struggling with economic crisis. We have to take care of the migrants from Donbas,” said Andriy Illienko, a deputy of the nationalist “Svoboda” party, referring to the ongoing armed conflict that the Donbas region of Ukraine has been involved in for the past two years.
“This issue (Syrian refugees asking for asylum in Ukraine – GV) can soon be on our agenda. When Ukraine becomes part of the European Union, it will have to express solidarity on the issue of refugee reception if necessary,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Pavlo Klimkin told Ukraine’s Channel 5.
In theory, Ukraine can accept thousands of refugees. While some members of the Ukrainian parliament see in this a potential threat to the health and well-being of Ukrainians, others are already counting the financial benefits promised by the West. Both supporters and opponents of the idea to accept refugees from the Middle East are missing an important detail. Refugees aren’t exactly eager to come to or settle in Ukraine.
“Ukraine won’t experience a flood of refugees from Syria. They understand that Ukraine is not in the best shape right now with its own crisis. This is why refugees see our territory as a transit zone on their way to Western Europe,” says Maksym Yakovlev, a political science professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine.
At the same time, some members of the Ukrainian political elite are quite vocal about scores of refugees from Middle Eastern states such as Syria who are allegedly “on their way to Ukraine.” They see the refugee crisis as an opportunity to ask for money and trade benefits from Germany, because this is exactly what the German chancellor Angela Merkelhas promised to those willing to help with the flood of people fleeing conflict, hunger and poverty.
“The EU will do its best to improve export conditions for the countries that carry the burden of the migration crisis in Syria. This includes possible trade benefits,” Merkel said.
A transit zone
There are some refugees from Syria coming through Ukraine, but their stay in the country is brief. More often then not, they use western Ukrainian territories as a transit zone on their way to other Western European countries. Ukraine could keep some of them, but as it is, the country doesn’t have the money. To do that, Ukraine would need at least four billion dollars to rebuild and keep its refugee camps running.
Foreign Minister Klimkin said that although the refugees might not be coming en masse yet, should they decide to, Ukraine will have to accept them and provide them with all the necessary commodities, to show some solidarity with its western European partners.
The National Migration Service of Ukraine supports this idea. It has recently announced that Ukraine is ready to help Europe handle the crisis and would be willing to accommodate some refugees on its territory. The migration experts are currently finalizing their estimates as to how many refugees Ukraine can take in.
The objections of the right-wing forces
Not everyone is happy about the possible newcomers. Members of local right-wing parties and radical civic groups have been the most active in spreading misinformation about refugees in Ukraine. They support and actively promote ideas such as the myth that refugees will bring foreign diseases to the local communities. Most of all, these forces seek to instill in people’s minds the idea that instead of helping refugees from the Middle East, Ukraine should be taking care of its own refugees from the East of the country and Crimea.
The refugee camp in Yahotyn, a town half an hour’s drive from the capital city of Kyiv, is the most recent example of how the supporters of right-wing parties are able to fuel ethnic tensions related to refugees among local communities. Recently, the UN representatives responsible for refugee issues and human rights activists came to Yahotyn to explain to the local citizens that the refugee camp that was opening there in a month was built with money from European donors. Its purpose is to host asylum seekers from any country, not just Syria. The decision of who will live in the new camp is based on the needs of people seeking asylum in Ukraine, not their country of origin. Thus, among the first 110 refugees accepted to the camp there will be nationals from Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and Syria.
During the most recent visit of the UN staff and National Immigration Service representatives to Yahotyn to answer questions from the locals, the right-wing activists organized a protest. While officials were talking to members of the community inside the town’s Culture Hall, members of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps “Right Sector” and the “Azov” Civic Corps gathered their supporters outside. They shouted slogans such as “We are saying NO to the refugee camp in Yahotyn” and told local citizens that at least 200 refugees from Syria would be coming to their town in May. The right-wing activists accused refugees of “bringing all sorts of exotic disease, including the Zika virus,” and speculated that the local crime rate would go through the roof, insinuating there could be terrorist attacks and clashes on religious grounds because of the new arrivals. Both the refugee numbers (200 instead of the official 110) and the warnings had little evidence to back them up, aiming instead to create fear and distrust among the local population.
Refugees in the Ukrainian media
In their hunt for breaking news and spicy details, Ukrainian media hardly made sufficient efforts to understand and explain the role of Ukraine in the European refugee crisis. According to a study conducted by the media monitoring web-site Detector.Media, none of the top national TV channels covered the Yahotyn refugee camp story in an unbiased, objective way. Most of them didn’t mention that the camp was built with money from the European Union. Some journalists openly used biased language and hate speech, calling refugees “people with doubtful reputation” and “nomads that locals are afraid of because they are wild and will cause much harm.” The study also found that almost every other story drew comparisons between Syrian refugees and migrants from Eastern Ukraine.
In fact, the reality of asylum seeking in Ukraine is different from how it’s portrayed in the local media. Every year, Ukraine receives a total of 1,500-2,000 requests for asylum submitted by refugees from 44 countries. Only about 200-300 lucky individuals get their applications approved each year.
“The rest of the requests are denied. That is why Ukraine isn’t experiencing a refugee overload like the majority of the EU countries,” said Natalia Naumenko, director of the Department of Foreigners and Persons Without Citizenship at the State Migration Service in her interview to HromadskeTV. “As for refugees from Syria, about 200 to 250 people from this country seek asylum in Ukraine every year.”
In the absence of in-depth, critical media coverage of the issue, politicians and radical anti-refugee activists continue to exploit the public’s ignorance on the matter of refugee support, seeking to improve their image in the Western European community or to win further support among Ukrainians, respectively. The refugees themselves, meanwhile, are left in the background, human lives lost among the sea of scare stories and political manipulation.