Emerging Voices: The Socio-Economics of Xenophobia

by Tendayi Achiume

[Tendayi Achiume is the Binder Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law.]

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), xenophobia is among the greatest contemporary challenges to the protection of refugees and other forced migrants globally. The May 2008 violent attacks against foreign nationals in South Africa are among the most striking contemporary manifestations of this problem. During a two-week period of violence, media reported door-to-door searches in townships and inner cities as inflamed crowds attempted to purge neighborhoods of foreign nationals they blamed for high rates of crime and job scarcity, among other things. These attacks left 62 dead, over 600 injured, and displaced more than 100,000 people—many of whose homes and property were looted in the process. Refugees were among the most severely affected. Although the scale and duration of the attacks in South Africa were remarkable, xenophobic discrimination is a serious problem in contexts as disparate as Greece, France, Ukraine, Israel, Libya and Egypt, where it threatens the lives and livelihoods of refugees and other forced migrants. In this post I briefly describe UNHCR’s response to this problem, which has focused on advocacy to punish hate crimes and to promote tolerance. While recognizing the importance of these measures, I argue that on their own they are inadequate. Engaging structural socio-economic concerns such as inequality and poverty is vital to successfully combating xenophobia, and must form a central part of UNHCR’s response.

International law does not define the term “xenophobia”. UNHCR posits that xenophobia may include “discrimination, incitement to discrimination, as well as acts of violence or incitement to violent acts on the grounds of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin, including in combination with other grounds, such as religion, gender or disability.” In the last decade or so, UNHCR has undertaken a range of global policy and advocacy initiatives to combat xenophobic discrimination. The most comprehensive articulation of UNHCR’s policy points to the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) as the legal anchor at the international level for fighting xenophobic discrimination. In a forthcoming article in the Georgetown Journal of International Law’s Spring 2014 volume, I conduct a novel and in-depth analysis of UNHCR’s use of international human rights to fight xenophobic discrimination. But here I wish to highlight a pressing concern with the evolution of UNHCR’s policy in this area.

A review of UNHCR’s approach reveals two broad categories, both of which find firm support in ICERD. The first focuses on punishing perpetrators of discriminatory acts explicitly motivated by xenophobic prejudice. Examples include advocacy to promote and enforce hate crimes legislation, to monitor signs of prejudice, and to track and publicize hate crimes prosecutions. The second category of strategies focuses on the use of human rights education initiatives and public awareness campaigns to fight prejudice and promote tolerance and diversity.

Punishing perpetrators and promoting tolerance and diversity are important strategies for protecting refugees from xenophobia. But on their own, these strategies are unequal to their task. A failure to engage the socio-economic conditions that seemingly foster xenophobia could easily undermine these and other efforts to protect refugees. Among those scholars who study xenophobia in South Africa, for example, there is consensus that conditions of actual and perceived scarcity are important determinants of xenophobic discrimination. A recent econometric study conducted by researchers at the African Center for Migration and Society (ACMS) offers empirical evidence of a statistically significant correlation between acts of xenophobic violence and the increase in the ratio of low/middle income earners to low/no income earners. A different, qualitative study found that extremely high unemployment, housing scarcity and inequality, and “extreme retail business competition” were core motivators of xenophobic violence. Even UNHCR itself has acknowledged structural socio-economic determinants of xenophobia in South Africa, although this acknowledgement is not reflected in its anti-xenophobia policy. Much empirical work certainly remains to be done to improve our understanding of the relationship between socio-economic conditions and xenophobia, but the existence of this relationship is undeniable.

For several years in a row South Africa has received the leading number of individual asylum applications globally. Loren Landau explains how there, perpetrators of xenophobic discrimination justify their actions as legitimate attempts to exclude foreigners perceived as a direct threat to the wellbeing of citizens. The language of xenophobic discrimination in this context is often the language of perceived scarcity and competition. To be clear, xenophobic discrimination cannot be reduced to socio-economic determinants. Politically motivated scapegoating of forced migrants and even criminal opportunism, for example, may play an important role in influencing when host communities mobilize to exclude or harm refugees. Furthermore, the socio-economic impact of refugees on host communities is typically far more complex than host communities themselves may perceive it to be. It is difficult to deny, however, that all over the world, the socio-economic implications of urban refugee protection disproportionately fall on the urban poor and working classes.  It is these marginalized communities who must share their already overcrowded residential spaces with forced migrants, and who must compete for the same semi-skilled and unskilled jobs that are typically the only ones available to refugees and other forced migrants. This reality is central to the problem of xenophobia in South Africa and in many other parts of the world.

To the extent that xenophobia is fueled by frustration with material conditions of poverty exacerbated by forced migrant populations, punishment and preaching a message of tolerance falls too far short of the appropriate response for refugee protection advocates. They must instead be willing also to prioritize strategies that mitigate the effect of actual and perceived conditions of material scarcity as part of the fight against xenophobia. In other words, given that socio-economic disparities notably, even if not entirely, fuel xenophobic discrimination, refugees require a global protection agenda that takes this into account.

It would be naïve to believe that UNHCR’s policy on fighting xenophobia can be the silver bullet that solves the problem of xenophobia entirely. This organization faces serious financial and political constraints on the work it can do, and holds a mandate for global refugee protection in a world where displaced populations are increasing even as economic crises threatens most nations. But as the global refugee protection agency, UNHCR greatly influences (1) how the problem of xenophobia is conceptualized, and (2) how the appropriate response for addressing it is conceptualized, at both the international and domestic levels. Thus an anti-xenophobia agenda that is silent on the socio-economic or material dimensions of this problem is arguably untenable. An important first step would be to call attention to these dimensions and to ensure that they meaningfully inform the emerging global anti-xenophobia agenda. The difficult but unavoidable task that lies ahead for refugee protections scholars and advocates, both inside and outside of UNHCR, is to confront this complex challenge head on.


2 Responses

  1. Fascinating post. This is indeed a concerning gap in international law and policy. In your research, did you come across any examples of good practice at the regional or domestic level of anti-xenophobia policies that emphasized the socioeconomic causes of xenophobia?

  2. Thanks, Chelsea! I’ve definitely found examples of practices that address the socio-economics of xenophobic discrimination—UNHCR’s current work in Syria’s neighboring countries is one example. There, UNHCR has been working to ensure that refugee assistance is provided in tandem with relief efforts for host communities as well. It’s important, however, that these practices eventually feed back into anti-xenophobia guidelines to form explicit recommendations on how to deal with xenophobia.

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