As the flow of refugees from Eastern Ukraine increases to the southern regions of Russia, the indignation of locals – who are becoming more and more reluctant to host Ukrainians – is also growing. Can it lead to social tensions and give another impetus to end the Ukrainian crisis?


Ukrainian refugees line up to return to their homes in eastern Ukraine at the Russia-Ukraine border check point in the Russian town Donetsk, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. Photo: AP

Ten years after the Chechen war, which produced many internally displaced persons and required significant efforts to organize the regular flow of humanitarian aid and raise living standards in tent camps, Russia has to face this challenge again, with tens of thousands of refugees coming from southeastern Ukraine as a result of the Ukraine conflict.

According to a recent report by the United Nations, over 660,000 people fled the Donbas to seek shelter in Russia and officially registered as refugees. Many of them stay in the southern and central regions of Russia, benefiting from government support and traditional Russian hospitality. They get accommodation in hotels and sanatoria and receive substantial financial help. The problem is that they have nothing to do as they wait out the Ukrainian crisis.

This lack of activity results in permanent claims for even better standards, internal conflicts over distribution of humanitarian aid and tensions with the local population and the local authorities. These authorities are responsible for providing care under strict supervision of Moscow but their irritation grows, as they have to fulfill higher and higher demands.

Members of the local population, having been put in a tight corner by the difficult economic situation, are envious about the financial assistance and “laziness” of the refugees, many of who are strong and apt men suitable for full-time employment.

Last autumn, 24 percent of Russians, according to VTsIOM, believed that the government did too much for the refugees. This figure was even higher in the municipalities where the refugees were staying. Forty-five percent assumed that these people should be sent back to Ukraine as soon as possible when favorable conditions emerge.

Another source of discomfort is the fact that, in some places, refugees seize local jobs and offer to work at lower rates. A curious example mentioned in the media is a petition by Siberian prostitutes who feel rising competition from their Ukrainian colleagues, ruining the market by lowering the prices they can charge.

It is clear that refugees – after passing proper formalities – could be readily used as part of the development projects in the Far East. However, many of them have the image as a sort of “parasite.” According to this view, their only dream is to stay relaxed in Moscow or in the warm and rich southern regions.

Another argument presented by many in Russia is that strong male refugees could well return to their home country to help with its defense and reconstruction. It certainly sounds cruel to push these desperate people back onto the battlefield, but it also looks strange to Russian patriotic thinking that males can skip the war in Donbas.

At the same time, the comments by the refugees themselves hint at a different view of the war. It is a Russian war, so leave us alone and fight with the Ukrainian government by yourselves, they would say. Such remarks make it even more insulting for the Russians who feel betrayed in their hospitality and their genuine feeling of sympathy.

It seems that the hidden discontent with the problem of refugees is increasing. This is analogous to steam in a hot kettle that has not yet reached the boiling point. Nonetheless, one can hear more frequently Russians grudgingly debating in their kitchens, especially in the wake of the economic crisis, when resources have become limited.

The kettle needs an urgent steam valve otherwise the refugees may turn into enemies, like it was a few years ago with the migrants from the Caucasus. Everyone remembers the tide of nationalism and extreme cases of xenophobia in some Russian cities.


Boys play at a refugee camp set up by the Russian Emergencies Ministry for people displaced by fighting in Ukraine, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Russia-Ukrainian border, near Donetsk, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, 2014. Photo: AP

More and more, these refugees are becoming a burden that Russians must shoulder. If a new wave of military escalation in Ukraine results in an increase in the number of refugees, the locals are highly likely to be more concerned with their own needs and the country’s weakening economy.

If Ukraine reaches the status of a frozen conflict, there will be more and more people campaigning for the return of refugees back home or to have them working rather than enjoying the social privileges unavailable to common Russians, who sometimes find themselves in much worse conditions.

If Donbas succeeds in achieving secession from Ukraine and the war ends, there will voices to send back the refugees for the sake of post-war rehabilitation of their native region.

It seems that the Russian authorities are not yet tackling the problem, while it requires their immediate attention and the creation of a proper communication strategy. Russia should study the experience of armed conflicts abroad and rely on best international practices available from various African, Asian and European countries.

This code of conduct should not limit itself to an education in how to be more tolerant, but rather, become the basis for some more sustainable solutions. One of them could be the shift of this burden to the shoulders of international organizations instead of giving in to a false sense of “national prestige.”

Russia will have to think about its future participation in the post-war reconstruction process in Ukraine, even though Moscow has tried to avoid dragging itself into this process. The problem of Ukrainian refugees raises inconvenient questions and requires from the authorities that they come up with coherent and long-term measures that will pacify the angry population. Such an approach is in Russia’s national interests and it is essential in resolving different demographic and labor market challenges.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.