We must stop the anti-refugee lies driving hate across the globe

Melissa Fleming
4 min readDec 20, 2022
Refugees from Ukraine at UNHCR’s cash enrollment centre in Poland

More refugees need our help more than ever. This year, war in Ukraine, the crisis in Afghanistan, the conflict in Ethiopia and fear of persecution have forced record numbers of people from their homes. Yet appeals for help are being drowned out by malicious lies and disinformation.

Malevolent narratives about refugees are nothing new. But in the age of social media, they flow across borders at the click of a mouse, undermining efforts to protect the vulnerable and raise funds on their behalf. We must act against this avalanche of hate spreading online. But how?

The first step is to acknowledge the scale of the problem. Malicious actors seeking to fuel conflict are increasingly targeting refugees. They are getting better at using deep-seated fault lines over migration to sow fear and hatred, using desperate people as pawns in a wider information war.

In Europe, we’ve seen mounting coordinated attacks on Ukrainians seeking shelter from the brutal war at home. In social media posts, refugees are depicted as “disease-ridden,” “uncultured,” or “lazy” and a drain on Europe’s wealth, recent media analysis by the Detector Media team found.

Germany is a key target for this kind of disinformation, analysis by the Washington Post shows. Anti-refugee posts are generated by a coordinated network of pseudo news sites, Telegram, YouTube, and Instagram channels, and Change.org petitions and spread by fake social media accounts.

Earlier this year, one video falsely claimed to show refugees burning a house down in Germany while setting fire to a Russian flag. Attempted arson attacks and threatening graffiti on refugee housing and schools suggest the messaging is reaching an already radicalized fringe.

Elsewhere, a malicious campaign in Italy presented footage of motorists dragging climate protesters off the road depicting them as Ukrainian refugees as evidence that locals were sick of hosting them. Yet another warped the results of a survey of British hosts of Ukrainian refugees to falsely suggest a quarter wanted to evict them.

Meanwhile, a group of Syrian Kurdish Iraqi and Afghan refugees trapped for nearly a year along the Polish-Belarusian border have been targeted with hateful language and racist conspiracy theories. The aim as ever is to sour the welcome shown to refugees by neighboring countries and beyond.

We are seeing similar patterns play out elsewhere around the globe. In the worst cases, hate speech spread online inflames old divisions, pushing ordinary citizens to unspeakable acts. As always, it is the most vulnerable and marginalized, refugees among them, that are made to suffer most.

I could name many examples of this, from Myanmar and the Central African Republic, to Iraq and South Sudan. In Ethiopia, where millions have fled devastating conflict in Tigray, hate-filled and dehumanizing language is spreading on social media, fueling and driving violence on the ground.

One way is to encourage resilience among social media users. Fact checking and active debunking of myths can go a long way to help tackle disinformation. Yet research shows it can be difficult to dislodge ideas based on false claims once they have embedded themselves in the receivers’ minds.

More effective is pre-bunking — deliberately exposing people to false or misleading information to debunk it ahead of time. A study by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies suggests closer monitoring to anticipate anti-refugee narratives and intervene before they can take hold.

One recent campaign by Google subsidiary Jigsaw targeted viewers in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic with short ads on Youtube. Rather than distinguishing facts from lies, the ads warned about common manipulation tricks — illustrated with clips from The Simpsons, Family Guy, or Star Wars.

Such strategies that put media literacy front and center will be key in the search for an effective response to the scourge of disinformation. But that is just part of the puzzle. National governments, public interest media and civil society all have crucial parts to play.

The tech giants will play an especially critical role. We urgently need them to establish policies, processes, and structures for operating in conflict settings based on international human rights and humanitarian law.

Especially in conflict settings, platforms need human moderators reviewing content in real time. They must be fluent in local languages and attuned to the local and regional contexts. This expertise can be complemented through partnerships with reliable fact-checking and civil society groups.

One thing is clear. Mounting conflict, food scarcity and the climate crisis will force ever more people to flee their homes in the coming months. All of them will be vulnerable and in urgent need of support. We must tackle head on attempts to exploit, endanger, and discredit them.

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Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.