Anatomy of Exaggeration: How Russian Propaganda Cites ‘UN Figures’

July 10, 2014
Refugee at Ukrainian-Russian border crossing. Photo by RIA Novosti

The exaggeration of refugee numbers persists by the Russian government and state propaganda outlets, which is unfortunate because the debate about the authenticity of the numbers and lack of access to the region by credible independent humanitarian organizations mean that those refugees who do exist are not getting sufficient attention.

The Kremlin’s lead propaganda outlet continues to report “110,000 refugees” today as it admits today that states of emergency were declared in 6 border towns — a fact that independent Novaya Gazeta reported a week ago as a reason why its reporters couldn’t gain entry to the area.

Refugees from Ukraine in Rostov Region. Photo by RIA Novosti / Valery Melnikov

Refugees from Ukraine in Rostov Region. Photo by RIA Novosti / Valery Melnikov

At that time Novaya Gazeta discovered that neither state nor independent journalists were allowed into refugee camps due to emergency orders. Some state media has used photographs of tents and refugees given to them by the Russian Federal Migration Service or Emergencies Ministry; some photos have been taken at airports where more resourced people have been able to buy tickets out of Ukraine; others show people boarding buses organized by the pro-Russian separatist movement out of the area or NGOs, but no mass crowds have been visible.

Possibly that’s because Russian authorities have been quickly moving many refugees out of Rostov region into other regions of Russian. The independent news service Caucasian Knot reported on 1 July that the Russian Emergencies Ministry had already moved 5,080 refugees by that time.

Refugies in Rostov being transported to other areas of Russia. Photo June 2014 by Russian Emergencies Ministry.

Refugies in Rostov being transported to other areas of Russia. Photo June 2014 by Russian Emergencies Ministry.

Since the figure of “110,000” refugees — or even four times as many — continues to be repeated, after getting visibility from US wire services and the large-circulation Wall Street Journal, it’s important to trace exactly how this happened. As we’ve been reporting, the figure does not appear credible, and local Russian authorities and wire services in fact are giving far lower figures of 18,000-25,000 for the actual number of persons who have crossed from Ukraine to Rostov Region who may be seeking refuge from fighting and not returning immediately.

As journalists and Western governments challenge the Kremlin’s figures, the state propaganda machinery has gone into overdrive, trying to drag the UN into appearing to endorse its numbers, but these attempts have also been discredited.

Here’s how the story began.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) went from saying 10,000 people on May 20, to “110,000” on June 27, because a) it was reliant on Russian government numbers as the UN spokesperson herself explains in a dispatch on the UN’s own Press Centre and b) it was referring to all Ukrainians who had arrived since January 2014 to Russia, many before the armed conflict.

On a story datelined 27 June 2014, states:

“Some 16,400 people fled their homes in crisis-riven eastern Ukraine during the past week, bringing the number of displaced within the country to 54,000, according the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).”

Note that this statement makes a distinction between internally-displaced persons (IDPs) who remained in Ukraine and refugees (who cross borders to other countries).

Here’s where the figure first appeared on 27 June:

“‘Many cite a deteriorating situation and fear of abduction for the sharp rise in displacement,’ said UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, adding ‘Increases were also being seen in the numbers of Ukrainians in Russia and other countries, although so far only a small number had applied for refugee status.’

“Since the start of 2014, approximately 110,000 Ukrainians had arrived in Russia – with only 9,600 requesting asylum – while more than 700 others went to Poland, Belarus, Czech Republic and Romania.”

But it’s important to read further down into the story, where reports the following, emphasis added:

Unable to verify all information on displacement, UNHCR has had to rely on local and central authorities; partners; and civil society organizations.”

Neither domestic or international non-governmental groups are in the camps.

UNHCR has an office in the UN group in Moscow, and has done some needs-assessments trips in Rostov but does not have permanent presence in the Russian border region nor does it run any camps, as it does in other world crises.

Fleming also pointed out that due to lack of security, it was difficulty to determine the numbers of internally-displaced within Ukraine itself.

Then on the same day, RIA Novosti English-language service picked up the same story, writing as follows:

“Some 110,000 people have fled Ukraine to Russia this year, while 54,400 others have been displaced within the country, Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said Friday.

‘Since the start of the year around 110,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Russia, and 750 have requested asylum in Poland, Belarus, Czech Republic and Romania,” the spokesperson said at a press briefing in Geneva.'”

RIA-Novosti correctly noted in quoting Fleming that this figure was from the start of the year, before the conflict began in Crimea in late February, and before separatist take-over of buildings began in April, and an ensuing Ukrainian “anti-terror operation.”

But it neglected to quote the’s other point that they were forced to rely on government statistics; indeed, they have make it seem as if now they are relying on a credible international body instead of their own government.

At this point RIA Novosti introduced the figure of “400,000” which the UN did not cite, and which has never been confirmed:

“According to Russia’s Federal Migration Service, more than 400,000 Ukrainians are currently staying in the Russian regions bordering Ukraine, with Russia’s Rostov Region receiving the bulk of the flow of refugees. At least 1,863 Ukrainians have applied for refugee status in Russia.”

When AP looked at this story, they kept the “110,000,” but like RIA Novosti, dropped the information that it was from the start of the year before the conflict, stating only “this year,” and dropped the caveat that it was from the government due to lack of access — although it didn’t take the “400,000” number:

“Some 110,000 Ukrainians have fled this year for Russia and another 54,000 have fled their homes but stayed in the country as Ukraine fights separatist rebels, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.

Only 9,500 of those fleeing for Russia have sought refugee status but many others are too afraid of future reprisals if they do return to Ukraine to make a formal request, said agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, citing official Russian figures and other U.N. information.”

Then likely using the AP wire service in a short news story, the Wall Street Journal reported on 27 June as follows, noting the starting period:

“More than 100,000 Ukrainians have fled for neighboring Russia and tens of thousands more have been displaced within the country as the government fights a pro-Russia insurgency, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.

Since the beginning of the year, roughly 110,000 Ukrainians have entered Russia though only 9,600 have requested asylum. The U.N. said many of the refugees are seeking other forms of legal status for their stays in Russia because of worries they could be targeted if they return to Ukraine.”

Thus, the Wall Street Journal made clear that the figure was from the beginning of the year but failed to note that the provenance of the number was from the Russian government itself, upon whom UNHCR is forced to rely due to lack of access.

The Wall Street Journal also added another dimension to the story usually lost completely in coverage of the issue — that due to forced annexation of the Crimea, Ukrainian citizens were forced to flee Russian-occupied Crimea to mainland Ukraine if they refused to accept Russian citizenship by April:

“Roughly 54,000 refugees have fled their homes but stayed within the country, according to the U.N. Of those, 12,000 are from Crimea, which was annexed by Russia earlier this year, while the rest are from the eastern part of Ukraine.”

All of these numbers bear further scrutiny by actual visits to camps and interviews with local officials and compiling of data from independent sources.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian forces in southeastern Ukraine are predicting more refugees; separatist leader Aleksandr Boroday said that fighters were evacuating Donetsk in advance of planned Ukrainian military action:

“‘We were forced to do this. Russia must prepare for several hundred thousand refugees. They practically all want to go to the Russian Federation,’ said Boroday.”

Since these huge numbers of 110,000 or even 400,000 have been challenged by a Russian human rights leader and the US State Department as well as Western journalists trying to cover the story, the Russian government has upped the ante, and tried to make their own numbers appear more credible, with the supposed burnish of UN “confirmation”.

Yesterday, Russia Beyond the Headlines, (RBTH) an English language publication published by the Russian state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta that has frequently produced pro-Kremlin propaganda supplements in the West, published a story with the headline, UN Confirms Flight of Ukrainian Refugees to Russia.

Refugees from Ukraine at Moscow's Domodedovo airport on 25 June 2014. Photo by ITAR-TASS

Refugees from Ukraine at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on 25 June 2014. Photo by ITAR-TASS

But “the UN” did not confirm the story — “the UN” does not even have any mention of it at their Press Centre or on the web site of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees.

The story in fact comes from the Russian spokesperson at the Moscow office of UNHCR. At the UN, a policy called “geographical distribution” mandates that the permanent five members of the Security Council have staff in all major agencies. And of course the very right of the UNHCR’s office to remain in Russia is on sufferance of the Russian government, so that staff from other countries consult with the host nation. RBTH counts on most people reading only headlines and a few paragraphs:

“The data cited by the UN’s Russia office is consistent with the FMS data, according to the Russian spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Galina Negrustuyeva. ‘Our staff members traveled to the border areas. We have seen everything with our own eyes, and we have no reason not to trust the information provided by the Russian Migration Service,’ Negrustuyeva confirmed RBTH the data of the Federal Migration Service (FMS). According to the FMS report of July 7, about 1.8 million Ukrainian citizens are currently residing in Russia. Of these, about 480,000 have recently arrived from combat zones.”

Negrustuyeva was last in the news when Edward Snowden sent out invitations to human rights defenders in Moscow to meet him at the Sheremetyovo Airport to discuss his asylum application; at that time as one of the recipients of his email, she was quoted as saying she was “undecided” about attending and ultimately UNHCR did not get involved in the Snowden case.

As a Russian official in a highly-visible position now in an international agency, Negrustuyeva has her reasons to trust the Russian Federal Migration Service. But the main office of UNHCR has not corroborated or published these figures independently.

The RBH story further sourced their figures in another controlled state body, the Presidential Civic Chamber:

“There are currently 414,726 people located in Russian border territories, and 20,461 people have already applied for temporary shelter. These numbers will grow, and there will be changes to the statuses the residents have obtained,” said Deputy Director of the FMS Anatoly Kuznetsov on Monday during a hearing at the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation.”

But here’s the most important factor for this story that essentially calls its own headline into question — the small print updating it at the end:

“This text was updated on July 10 at 2 pm to correct the statement by the UNHCR representative. The representative did not give a number, as previously stated, but confirmed the numbers given by Russia’s Federal Migration Service.”

What that means is that for 24 hours, this story circulated, replicated around the world, as some kind of “independent” evaluation of a credible international agency. And now that this is corrected to speak of a “confirmation” rather than a “giving,” there’s still the obvious question of the credibility of the story when it is not Geneva headquarters of UNHCR supervising an independent finding.

Although her first loyalty is to the Russian government, the Russian staff person at UNHCR is still part of a UN system. And this UN system did not independently confirm the number, even if she saw camps “with her own eyes”; she got it from the Russian government. Likely UN officials insisted on the correction.

But soon, UN officials in either New York or Geneva may begin quoting this number, and even if they qualify it by explaining it comes from the Russian government — as they did back on 27 June when this story began — the caveat is likely to be dropped in the reporting once again.

Russia Behind the Headlines might have bolstered its credibility by using a current and accurate picture from this week; the one they used on their misleading story was dated 25 June — two weeks ago — and was taken at Moscow’s domestic Domodedovo Airport. The original caption to the photo said the Russian Emergencies Ministry were organizing “air bridges” from Ukraine and that these people were refugees from Crimea — now occupied by Russia — and Rostov Region being taken to other regions of Russia, so it’s not clear how many of them were actually escaping armed conflict in southeastern Ukraine.