In recent days, we have observed an intensified disinformation campaign directed against refugees, aimed at causing panic, chaos and aggression against dark-skinned immigrants who cross the Polish-Ukrainian border. We receive a lot of information on this subject from our Readers.
Poland, like most of the western world, unequivocally sided with Ukraine in the conflict caused by the Russian Federation. There are many indications that the source of many false and unconfirmed news may be the actions of foreign services, which are part of a hybrid war directed against our country. Unfortunately, the disinformation campaign directed against dark-skinned foreigners fell on willing ear of the far-right and football fans.
Why are dark-skinned refugees crossing the border with Ukraine?
The leading role in the anti-immigrant narrative is played by Najwyższy Czas weekly. The editor-in-chief of this weekly is Tomasz Sommer, who in the post on Twitter could not get over the fact that there are also black people among refugees from Ukraine.
According to the statistics of the State Statistic Service of Ukraine, i.e. the equivalent of the Polish Central Statistical Office, in the period of 2010-2020 over 30,000 people of African descent settled permanently in Ukraine. According to Interfax, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine informed that in 2021, 76.5 thousand foreign students were studying at Ukrainian universities. The majority of them came from the following countries: India – 18,095, Morocco – 8,832, Turkmenistan – 5,322, Azerbaijan – 4,628, Nigeria – 4,227, China – 4,055, Turkey – 3,999, Egypt – 3,048, Israel – 2,107, Uzbekistan – 1,585. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that among the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, foreigners of other origins, including thousands of Africans and Asians, also fled the bombing.
A separate, very popular narrative online is the one disseminated by, among others, Wojciech Cejrowski. In his post on Twitter, he writes that mothers with children are in the minority compared to non-Ukrainian foreigners. According to information provided by the Polish Border Guard, 575.1 thousand people from Ukraine came to Poland during the period of February 24 to March 3, 2022.
We talked to Lieutenant Anna Michalska, the Press Officer of the Commander-in-Chief of the Border Guard. According to the information we received, 90% of the refugees crossing the border with Ukraine are Ukrainian men and women. The remaining 10% are citizens of the EU and the rest of the world, including foreigners from African and Asian countries.
The situation of dark-skinned foreigners fleeing Ukraine
Recently, a video showing an Arabic-speaking man standing with a knife in his hand in the entrance to a train has been very popular in anti-refugee narratives. In the short video one can see that the man mostly lets women with darker complexion pass. The description in French is:
In Kharkiv, a student from Morocco took on board the Africans who had been waiting on the platform for three days, he took out a knife to prevent Ukrainians from taking them off the train.
Based on the comparison of the columns visible on Google Maps, we have confirmed that the video actually comes from the Kharkіv-Pasazhyrsky railway station in Kharkiv. We analysed other videos from this station in the context of racial selection of refugees while accepting them on trains. In a comment for the African news TV eNCA, a black woman says she is on the verge of breakdown as she waits for access to transport, which prioritises Ukrainian citizens. In another post, we see that white women were allowed to pass before blacks. In this video, one can see Zambian students being kicked out of the train. In another video, Indian students are not allowed on the trains, with the Ukrainian conductor saying that there are no vacancies.
As Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, points out, Russia can use racism to undermine the West’s support for Ukraine. That is why it is important not to succumb to anti-refugee propaganda, to condemn cases of racism, but at the same time not to quit helping Ukraine.
Media about the situation of refugees on the Ukrainian border
The BBC has prepared its material about the difficult situation of foreign students from Africa and India, which emphasises that there are numerous testimonies that Ukrainian citizens have priority in fleeing the country. The Times of India created a documentary about the difficulties of getting Hindu students out of Ukraine.. BBC News Africa broadcast a testimony by a Nigerian woman who described the traumatic process of escaping Ukraine and problems with blocking places in means of transport for African citizens. A testimony of the sister of CNN’s producer Bijan Hosseini, who documented her traumatic journey to the border with videos sent to her brother via social media, also echoed loudly. In the report of February 26, we see a crowd of black men and women with children waiting to cross the border, because Ukrainian women with children were also prioritized here, which was confirmed by the interviewees of The New York Times.
Other reasons were the overcrowding of border crossings, fewer personnel on the Ukrainian side and the need to follow standard procedures that weren’t adapted to such a large wave of refugees. This situation gave rise to false information that the Polish side did not allow black people to enter Poland. Polish authorities denied such claims. On March 1, Minister Dworczyk announced in the media that Ukraine had simplified the formalities, and that is why the border traffic has been running more efficiently since then.
The war, permanent state of emergency, exhaustion from hunger and cold can lead to frustration regardless of the skin colour. Therefore, the context of the observed situation is important. Fortunately, in addition to negative reports, positive news is also getting through to the public. On March 1, the Indian Minister of Transport announced the successful evacuation of 437 students from Ukraine who had returned via Poland to their country. On the same day, TDF troops published a Tweet informing about the aid provided to students from Zambia.
Effects of anti-refugee propaganda and disinformation
An open group called “Engineers in Przemyśl” was established on Facebook, which gathered several thousand users in a short time. It has already been deleted. It contained information about incidents caused by refugees and unconfirmed stories from anonymous sources. This profile was also used for communication by groups of people willing to “patrol” the streets of Przemyśl in order to detect groups of non-white refugees. Anna Żmudzka’s post generated a significant number of interactions. The unusual grammar in the final sentence draws attention: “Zapraszam na profil mój obejrzeć filmy”. Later on, Żmudzka’s Facebook account was cleared of all content, and its user changed the profile picture and description.
In another article we discuss a similar issue of misinformation about the alleged expulsion of Polish children with oncologic diseases to make room in hospitals for adolescent patients from Ukraine. What the sources of these false rumours have in common is that they are spread from newly created accounts. Confederation politicians, including Konrad Berkowicz, seconded the conspiracy theories. He expressed the intentions of his arrival at the Polish-Ukrainian border in the following post.
According to the Institute for Internet and Social Media Research, recently there have been over 120,000 identified disinformation attempts in the Polish social media on the subject of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Particular activity in the anti-refugee narrative was spotted among groups operating in anti-covid channels.
Unfortunately, the effects of the anti-refugee campaign were not long in coming. In the evening of March 1, according to the OKO.Press report, a group of Polish football fans attacked volunteers from the German organization “Humanity First”. On the same day, as reported by Interia, there was an attack on three Indian students, which was confirmed by police in Przemyśl.
How is disinformation created?
In order for a disinformation campaign to be successful, it must meet some basic criteria. It has to be partially truthful, so photos of people pointing to African descent are needed. We also know of one confirmed attack on a store and an attack by a Turkmen citizen on an ambulance staff. The Provincial Ambulance Station in Przemyśl removed the post on Facebook informing about the attack, because it was used to create an atmosphere of danger and to incite to hatred towards other people. No other reports have been corroborated by evidence or by official services.
A post intended for disinformation must be engaging, it should evoke strong emotions so that it gets shared online. Most often, the feeling is anger, but there are also positive emotions.
Technical knowledge about the functioning of social media is also helpful in spreading false information. As Michał Fedorowicz from the Institute for Internet and Social Media Research explains in his article for Wirtualna Polska, “small profiles get a reach bonus if their posts get a lot of likes in a short time. Someone knew how the Facebook algorithm works.”
The problem of Russian propaganda in social media in the context of refugees was also raised by the Konkret24 portal.
Information warfare is an effective tool in causing social unrest. This time, unlike in 2018, the government media does not take part in the campaign to create hatred towards refugees, but the disinformation campaign is carried out in a dispersed manner by newly created social media accounts. Confederation politicians and some right-wing magazines also made their contributions.
Unfortunately, the effects of the propaganda campaign against foreigners resulted in a growing wave of hate online and actual acts of violence. Therefore, it is very important not to spread rumours and unverified information, as by doing so, we may involuntarily become a tool in the disinformation action.