27 Mar 2023 Why communication rights are key to supporting the rights of Ukrainian refugees
Since the start of the Russian invasion more than a year ago, over 8.1 million people have fled Ukraine. Nearly 4.9 million have obtained some form of temporary protection in different European countries — a major humanitarian challenge for the region, without counting the more than 5.3 million who have been displaced within Ukraine’s borders.
According to UNHCR, Poland and Germany have welcomed the majority of Ukrainian refugees to date. Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary also are receiving thousands of people, putting a strain on social services in those countries.
So far, public attitude towards the Ukrainian newcomers has been positive. The early days of the war saw displays of welcome and solidarity in many European capitals, and even now, 13 months in, despite some dips, public support for the new arrivals remains quite strong in most countries in Europe.
Nevertheless, there is a very real danger that the longer the humanitarian crisis goes on, the general attitude of welcome may shift, adding to the xenophobia towards and discrimination against refugees and migrants in many places in Europe and shaping policies and practices.
The risk of returning to a “refugee crisis” narrative — as experienced in 2015 — is real. And it is heightened by the economic recession in Europe, which feeds nationalist and populist discourses. European citizens have paid a price for the war in the form of a more than two-fold rise in energy prices in some areas, coupled with cost spikes for other day-to-day necessities and soaring inflation, writes Gouri Sharma in Aljazeera.
Meanwhile, some Ukrainian refugees in some countries are beginning to struggle to meet basic needs, such as housing in the United Kingdom, and there are fears exploitative labour practices might be on the rise in places like the Netherlands.
In this context, communication matters. The quality of media coverage about migration, the type of representation of refugees and migrants in media and public discourse, the degree to which migrants have equitable access to communication platforms and information, the type of information that circulates on social media — all will be significant factors in whether the public narrative on Ukrainian migration takes a xenophobic turn.
Communication and information-based interventions are critical in advancing a rights-based migration narrative and meeting the needs of people on the move for information and support networks at a time of high vulnerability.
Migrants and refugees need information to know how and where to seek international protection. They need information to be able to integrate into and contribute to their new communities. Being able to access information is not a privilege but a right, anchored in international and regional conventions — a “gateway” right upon which other rights build.
The need for communication goes beyond access to information. Migrants have a human need to interact with others, to tell their stories, and to connect with others for community and support. A 2016 study on the communication needs of migrants in Europe found that connection — with other refugees and with family and friends by mobile and on social platforms — builds resiliency.
Information and communication are pillars of any effort to advance the human rights of migrants. We must put this understanding front and center to keep public attitudes about migrants, whatever their country of origin, focused on welcome.
Photo: Refugees on the Ukrainian-Slovak border: A man in the foreground of Ukrainian refugees says goodbye to his wife, who is fleeing Russian aggression. Credit: Yanosh Nemesh