Kremlin seeks to exploit growing distrust of refugees in Europe

Instability and the rising cost of living have led to a significant growth in the number of refugees and other migrants around the world. The opportunity to exploit the crisis will not be missed by other countries, notably Russia.

by John P. Ruehl

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 7 million Ukrainian refugees have left the country until mid-June. While around 1.5 million ended up in Russia, the rest mostly entered the European Union, where they were granted the right to live and work for up to three years, in addition to benefiting from the welfare, education, housing, food and medical assistance. .

The EU has spent more than €6 billion in aid to Ukraine since the conflict began, and its support for Ukrainian refugees could cost tens of billions of euros this year. Brussels and various EU countries will spend billions more before the end of the war and to help the country’s reconstruction efforts afterwards.

A child hugs his mother in a temporary shelter at a high school gymnasium in Przemysl, near the Ukraine-Poland border, in March 2022

However, with the rising cost of living since the pandemic accelerating since the launch of the Russian invasion, European governments are sensitive to perceptions that they are not doing enough to ensure well-being. of their own citizens. And even with the substantial aid so far, the millions of Ukrainian refugees have begun to strain European social services, particularly in Poland, where nearly 5 million Ukrainian refugees have traveled or passed through.

Resentment towards refugees can grow quickly, even in countries with seemingly similar cultures. In Turkey, for example, 72% of the population showed support for refugees from neighboring Syria in 2016, while in 2019, 80% said they preferred Syrian refugees to be repatriated.

The tension between Turkish citizens and refugees from Syria, as well as those from Afghanistan and other countries, has been documented for years in Turkey. The presence of these refugees continues to be a major source of political and social unrest in the country.

Poland and Ukraine, meanwhile, have their own historical differences, and political criticism has been leveled at Ukrainian refugees in Poland and other European countries. Russian media has also been spreading misinformation to fan the flames of anti-Ukrainian sentiment across the continent.

Around 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees have returned to their country of origin since the start of the conflict. But more than 7 million Ukrainians remain internally displaced and vulnerable to further military escalation in the war. The Biden administration’s offer to take in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees will not help solve this problem, and Ukrainians are unlikely to find many other places outside of Europe where they can go in large numbers. .

The Ukrainian refugee crisis has also coincided with a growing number of displaced people around the world over the past decade. From 2011 to 2021, their number has increased from 38.5 million to 89 million. Weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, announced that the number of forcibly displaced people had exceeded 100 million for the first time.

The 2015 European migration crisis revealed how instability in surrounding regions could rapidly increase flows of people to the continent. That year, 1.3 million people applied for asylum in the EU, around half of them fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, other refugees, asylum seekers and migrants came from Kosovo, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Iran and dozens of other countries.

Across the EU, the institution’s handling of the refugee crisis has been strongly frowned upon. This led to a rise in reactionary right-wing political sentiment and reinforced policies against welcoming refugees and migrants. Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency, has also massively increased its powers, budget and staff.

But the crisis has also been exacerbated by countries seeking to more openly test the EU’s vulnerability to migration. As the main migrant route to Europe, Turkey has leveraged refugee and migrant flows to obtain monetary and political concessions from the EU. In 2017, migration to Spain from Morocco, another major transit country to Europe, increased as the Moroccan government was locked in a dispute with the EU over a free trade agreement. .

Having seen the effects of Libyan violence and wars on migration, the Kremlin also understood that its intervention in the Syrian civil war would cause a new wave of people to Europe. Supporting political and social instability across the continent in the wake of the refugee crisis fits squarely with Russia’s attempts to challenge the West.

But despite being off the beaten track of usual immigration to Europe, the Kremlin has also been instrumental in directly aiding the flow of migrants and refugees.

In 2015, Finnish and Norwegian border authorities accused the Kremlin of being involved in the arrival of hundreds of Middle Eastern migrants who crossed their borders from Russia. Finland and Norway are bound by stricter refugee and migrant acceptance laws than Russia and could do little because Russian border guards refused to take them back.

Russian attempts to bring refugees to Europe have been going on for years. But in 2021, the Kremlin has significantly expanded its efforts with the help of Belarus. Having faced growing tensions over EU sanctions, Belarus has also started sending migrants to the Schengen area through its borders with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, with help from Russia. .

Renatas Požela, former commander of the Lithuanian border guards, said in 2017 that Russia played a major role in moving migrants from Russia and Belarus to Lithuania. However, their numbers were relatively low, with 104 people detained in 2018, 46 in 2019 and 81 in 2020. But in 2021, Lithuania alone detained more than 4,100 “illegal migrants, mainly from Syria and Iraq”. .

Ongoing crises have eroded the EU’s commitment to upholding refugee and migrant rights laws, and Brussels has come under increasing criticism of its policies from rights organizations of humans in recent years.

But the Kremlin’s tactics have moved beyond simply trying to undermine European social and political stability. As with energy and food, refugee and migrant flows will be used by Russia to weaken Western support for Ukraine and its war effort.

Around the world, conflict and the rising cost of living have caused great instability. On the periphery of Europe, the populations of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen are particularly vulnerable to forced displacement due to the circumstances in these countries.

Meanwhile, across the Middle East, which receives a substantial share of its grain from Russia and Ukraine, the effects of war have also deepened food insecurity and could further increase refugee and migrant flows.

Italian League party leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said on June 6 that food insecurity and economic instability, following the war in Ukraine, could bring half a billion refugees and of migrants heading for Europe. While it is difficult to accurately quantify the number of people who will travel to Europe, the growing instability will clearly increase the flow of migrants from neighboring regions.

European countries, and the EU itself, have hastily turned to offshore processing centers to resettle migrants, asylum seekers and refugees outside the continent in recent years. But the underdevelopment of these systems, together with the limitations of Frontex, mean that Europe will again be unable to stem a significant increase in flows of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Moreover, Turkey already hosts the largest population of refugees and asylum seekers in the world, and Ankara is expected to host many more. The world has also seen how Europe has been able to absorb millions of Ukrainians relatively quickly, and there will be pressure on the EU to also accept non-European migrants and refugees.

Western sanctions and other measures aimed at punishing Russia for invading Ukraine have in turn exacerbated the situation felt in global energy and food markets, while much of the violence in the Middle East stems in part from the foreign policies of Western countries since the turn of the century.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe has suffered from rising inflation, rising food and energy costs and an influx of refugees. But the effects of war are amplifying these forces globally, and the Kremlin will do everything in its power to escalate the refugee crisis in Europe and pressure the EU to end its support. to Ukraine.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, DC He is editor of Strategic Policy and contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.