Author: 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.