Why there’s no ‘flood’ of Ukrainian refugees


More than 1% of Estonia’s population is now made up of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s war. As of late last week, around 24,000 have arrived, of which more than 6,000 have been in transit to our Nordic neighbours while around 18,000 have decided to settle.

Estonian police give out toys to Ukrainian refugees at the border

The response from the Estonian state and society has been overwhelmingly positive towards the need to make them feel welcome, integrate into local life, and support themselves until they can return home. Reception centres have been set up, staffed with the support of Ukrainian refugees themselves, and children arriving at the Estonian border are greeted with toys.

Many Estonians remember how their own families were welcomed among allied nations when they had to flee war more than 70 years ago and also how they made a large contribution to the nations that provided them a home.

Attempts to weaponise migration

Despite this, both Russia and Belarus’ regimes have continued to weaponise the issue of migration in an attempt to divide society both in Estonia and across Europe. In addition to creating the refugee crisis itself by waging a brutal war of aggression and targeting civilian homes and infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, they have also used propaganda to exacerbate concerns and tensions among both migrants and the populations of countries hosting them.

This strategy predates the full scale war on Ukraine launched by Russia with the support of Belarus. Similar tactics were used in Syria and, more recently, Belarus has waged the most blatant campaign to traffic migrants into Europe, which Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko described himself as a way to “flood” the EU.

We must be mindful of how this hostile campaign can influence the very language we ourselves use to discuss the issue and how that shapes our perceptions of the challenge.

Propastop monitors both hostile propaganda against Estonian, as well as how that can seep into free media too.

We discovered political debates last weekend that spoke about the arrival of Ukrainian war refugees in Estonia using language that describes refugees as a dangerous natural phenomenon. Along with words such as ‘influx’, references to water are sometimes used such as ‘flood’, ‘wave’, or even ‘tsunami’.

Refugees as a dangerous natural phenomenon

Charlotte Taylor, a researcher at the University of Sussex, published a study last year entitled “Migration Metaphors Through the Ages,” which found that these water metaphors are among the most common descriptions for migrants, even in contexts that would be considered neutral.

The impact of these words is not always obvious to the listener or even the person using these words, but they evoke images of an uncontrollable natural phenomenon. This dehumanises and deindividualises migrants, removing their agency, and framing them as a threat to audiences, ultimately influencing how the public perceive the issue of refugees and providing more opportunities for hostile propaganda to exploit social tensions.

In reality, the situation is the opposite way around. It is Russia, and Belarus by proxy, that has acted as an uncontrollable, dangerous natural phenomenon, causing Ukrainians to flee their homes as if fleeing a tsunami themselves.

Metaphors as information warfare

Metaphors are not neutral. They are subtly emotive and incredibly powerful. They act as a package that not only convey a basic meaning but can be used to smuggle values and worldviews to the receiver, which alters their perceptions.

In the book  ‘Metaphors by which we live’ (which has also been published in Estonian), American linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain that “the metaphors we use determine the choices we make, whether in our daily behavior or in our political decisions”. Once the metaphor is established, it can be difficult to think beyond it. 

This is something that autocratic regimes have exploited throughout history.

At its most extreme, describing people as parasitic creatures has long been used to dehumanise groups in society and condition populations to support repression, atrocities, and genocide. The Soviet Union referred to enemies of its regime as harmful insects, lice, and bloodsuckers. The Nazi regime referred to Jewish people as snakes and vermin. And the Rwandan genocide of Tutsi people was proceeded by widespread radio propaganda describing them as cockroaches.

Similarly, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has, while arguing that Ukraine is not a nation, referred to Ukrainians as a virus and, more recently, discussed opposition in Russia as ‘scum’ that “Russians will spit out like a midge that has entered their mouths”.

Change the conversation

Metaphors are fundamental to human speech. We cannot think without metaphors, but we can be mindful of which metaphors we use and who wants us to use certain metaphors over others – and why.

If we recognise that Ukrainians are victims of Russia’s war, but also valuable, complex individuals with their own agency then it is more consistent to refer to them as friends and guests. This can have a positive effect on how Ukrainians can settle, integrate, and contribute to our host countries while they are here, and help create a more cohesive and smoother functioning society for everyone that is more resilient against hostile propaganda to all of us.

Cover photo: The Estonian Police and Border Guard Board