As part of efforts to strengthen and harmonise responses to migrants and refugees, the UN is to lead a global campaign to counter xenophobia. Announced by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in April, member states are expected to pledge their support for the campaign at the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants taking place in New York today.
Certainly, the timing is right. With the backlash against foreigners so virulent and violent across all continents, working to establish global norms against xenophobia is undeniably a good thing. Although imperfect, global efforts to promote gender equality norms, for example, have created empowerment opportunities for women who might otherwise remain both deeply marginalised and off the global agenda.
But as with other global quests for social justice, it’s important to ask: what kind of xenophobia will the campaign target and what strategies ought to be at its centre? As global gender equality campaigns informed by the circumstances of first-world women have shown, global campaigns can be both contentious and counterproductive.
Despite the current furore in Europe over migration and asylum, over 85 percent of the world’s refugee population remains in the Global South – often kept there with assistance from the Global North. The proportion of migrants coerced to move by economic considerations that remain in the Global South is even higher. Most of these people are confined to low-rent, economically underprivileged communities in poor, receiving countries. This is the battleground for fighting xenophobia, and the challenge is how to avoid worsening the very problem we hope to address.
As the UN and its partners move forward with this campaign, it is important that they ask some key questions.
What is the fight?
The first and underlying priority must be stopping violent and structural xenophobic exclusion seen across the globe. Doing so creates the opportunity for other forms of social and economic integration and broader campaigns for tolerance and inclusion.
In many parts of the world, xenophobia is not necessarily an immigration issue. Discrimination can stem from linguistic, ethnic, and religious differences among a state’s own citizens. For example, migrants from Zambia may be relatively welcome in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Katanga Province, where they share ethno-linguistic connections with local people, while Congolese nationals from elsewhere in the country have been violently excluded. In South Africa, a country that has received some of the world’s highest numbers of asylum seekers, about a third of those killed in ‘xenophobic’ violence are citizens from elsewhere in the country. And in Kenya, citizens of Somali descent often bear the brunt of police discrimination along with refugees from Somalia. While immigration can certainly exacerbate tensions or bring its own dynamics, broader patterns of mobility and exclusion are an important part of the problem.
Whether aimed at addressing exclusion of ‘local’ minorities or international migrants, anti-xenophobia campaigns must account for the reality that the most violent and fraught displays of xenophobia are often rooted in local – state, municipal, or even neighbourhood – battles for land, jobs, or political office. For example, South Africa’s highly visible 2008 xenophobic attacks, which killed more than 60 people in the space of two weeks, were in part a response to state policy widely perceived as being too welcoming to Zimbabwean migrants. This response was not led by national political parties, but by local gang leaders, councillors, and shopkeepers who mobilised to further their own interests. Similarly, in elections across Europe and the US, politicians often employ hateful talk in an effort to win elections.
Who should lead the fight?
If we accept that the mobilisation of hate is often essentially driven by local or national politics, we must then ask what the international community can do about it. What can the UN do about the extremist vitriol of the world’s Le Pens, Trumps, Gilderses, and others?
Condemnation from the outside is rarely effective for leaders who scorn the international system. A global campaign chastising xenophobic firebrands for their base, nationalistic sentiments may just be handing them a Molotov cocktail. After all, what serves their purposes more than being scolded by global, cosmopolitan elites for trying to protect ‘national values’ and cultures? Such an approach may only help harden cultural and political battlelines. If the condemnation and action against those inciting or leading violence is not domestically driven, we are likely to fan rather than douse the fires of hate.
How should the fight be fought?
The bulk of global interventions fail to percolate to these micro-battlegrounds because they don’t address the incentives for anti-outsider mobilisation. Even worse, heavy-handed anti-xenophobia campaigns aimed at protecting the rights of foreign minorities risk drawing them out into the open, enhancing their visibility, and making their foreignness the issue where it might not have been. This can be especially critical in places where refugees and other immigrants suffer similar forms of deprivation to the citizens that live around them. If one wants a recipe for heightened hatred and resentment, campaigns that target foreigners for assistance and protection while ignoring other marginalised categories might just be it.
A global anti-xenophobia campaign that misses these nuances will at best be a waste of resources, and at worst a generator of perverse outcomes. Those crafting its details must avoid the all-too-common pitfall of failing to account for local realities.
Working quietly with local authorities – elected, appointed, or self-appointed – to facilitate local, grassroots initiatives to create pressure and incentives for more inclusive societies may be one way to go. This does not mean abandoning global principles of tolerance and inclusion, but it does mean crafting a careful approach to ensure interventions don’t do more harm than good.