(Good) Refugees Welcome! European Far-Right Responses to the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis

European far-right politicians quickly changed their discourse on refugees in the advent of the war in Ukraine. Obviously more known for being indicted for hate speech against refugees than for defending them, this new situation proved to be a challenge for many far-right politicians in Europe. How to respond to this wave of refugees while maintaining and potentially expanding their electoral base? How to explain that borders must be open for the Ukrainians but not for others?

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Lukuaika: 3 min.

Author: Gwenaëlle Bauvois

Many far-right politicians had a sudden change of heart when Russia invaded Ukraine: Matteo Salvini, former Minister of the Interior in Italy and far-right leader, who half a year ago stood in court for blocking refugees from a rescue ship, took a plane to the Ukrainian border to facilitate the travel of refugees to Italy. In a similar vein, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the leading strongman of the anti-migrant right in the EU, stated regarding Ukrainian refugees that “We must take them” and provide a safe place for people crossing the border to escape the war. Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish far-right party Vox, declared in the parliament that Ukrainian refugees should be welcomed to Spain, while voicing his hostility towards non-white refugees who come to Europe to “colonise” it.

In Czech Republic, the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, known for its hard line on immigration, also supported helping refugees from Ukraine, at least for the time being. The Flemish far-right party, Vlaams Belang, asked Belgium to temporarily suspend asylum applications for non-Ukrainians to make room for refugees coming from Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Finns Party’s leader Riikka Purra also claimed that these refugees should be helped but asked for the refugee quota to be reset.

When questioned on the war, Marine Le Pen replied: “What we can do is welcome refugees, keep hope alive, and work for peace”. This is not exactly the kind of words one is used to hearing from the leader of the French far-right. Louis Aliot, the vice chairman of the National Rally, even chartered buses to Poland and brought back 113 Ukrainian refugees to his city of Perpignan, advertising his ‘humanitarian operation’ on social media.

Ukrainians: the ‘good’ refugees?

What can explain this profound and sudden shift? Of course, the fact that the refugees from Ukraine have been presented verbatim in many mainstream media outlets as “European”, “white”, “Christian”, “intelligent,” “educated”, “civilised”, and “middle-class” have contributed to shaping a positive image in the public opinion. Ukrainians became in the eyes of far-right politicians an example of the “good refugees”: women and children seeking safety while the men are fighting for their country. This image of the “good refugee” is, of course, constructed in opposition to the “bad refugee”: those fleeing from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan in 2015, portrayed mostly as able young men who left their women behind, who never intended to go back to their country and who embody all the threats that the far-right brandishes to mobilise their electorate.

Also, higher moral values are highlighted to portray Ukrainians as “the right kind” of refugees: for Finn’s Party leader Riikka Purra, Ukrainians seeking refuge are a “patriotic people” who will leave as soon as possible to rebuild their country. In a tweet, Jooa Raja-Aho, a local Finns Party politician, claimed that Ukrainians are capable of showing “gratitude” – by doing community work for instance – and he believes that they will “not be over-represented in crime statistics”, unlike previous refugees.

Surfing the wave of solidarity

Though it cannot be denied that many far-right politicians might truly consider that Ukrainians are indeed “different” from “other refugees”, there is of course a more prosaic explanation to this seemingly sudden surge of solidarity. Most rookie politicians knew better to surf the wave of solidarity instead of running against the tide. The far-right did not want to lose its influence in the public opinion and fail to have their voice heard in the media, especially when crucial elections are coming up. 

For instance, Marine Le Pen’s brand new attitude towards refugees conveniently happened right during the presidential campaign: this was just one additional step towards the de-demonisation of the party in an effort to appear as a mainstream candidate and expunge her now inopportune associations with Vladimir Putin. As President Emmanuel Macron occupied the diplomatic scene as a strong leader when the war broke, she seeked to position herself as a world class politician involved in international affairs. 

A few more inexperienced politicians remained however unyielding and continued to voice their anti-immigration and anti-refugees discourse, despite the clear shift happening in public opinion. This is the case of Eric Zemmour, the far-right pundit and former journalist who was considered as a strong contestant against Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen during the 2022 French presidential elections. The far-right candidate openly claimed that he preferred those fleeing Ukraine to be welcomed in Poland, not in France. He then tried to rectify his position but the damage was done. Eric Zemmour admitted, after his bitter defeat, to having “said something stupid” and that without the war in Ukraine he would have gathered more votes.

Overall, the majority of European far-right politicians displayed a great political agility showing that they could quickly adapt to this new situation and seize the opportunity to present themselves in a better light: more human, more empathetic and more open-minded. This proved to be an opportunistic yet efficient way to jump on the solidarity bandwagon and occupy media space on the international level.

Gwenaëlle Bauvois is a researcher at the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN), Swedish School of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. Her areas of expertise are anti-immigration transnational narratives, right-wing populism, countermedia and post truth politics.