Combating Xenophobic Violence–A Framework for Action

Around the world, refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, and others viewed as “foreign” have been the targets of violent attacks. Xenophobic, racist, and other forms of bias-motivated violence have a devastating and crippling effect on the targeted communities. This global problem will only escalate if not effectively addressed. In this era of increased global migration, and during a time of economic difficulties, those viewed as “foreign” are more vulnerable than ever, as they can be easy targets of blame—and anger—for political, economic, and societal ills.

Xenophobic and other bias-motivated violence has affected refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, and others in different corners of the globe. A brutal anti-immigrant mob attack in Athens, injuring dozens; sub-Saharan African migrants targeted during the recent conflict in Libya; threats of anti-immigrant violence in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, recalling the 2008 wave of violence there; migrant workers from Central Asia assaulted in broad daylight on the busy Moscow subway; and racist harassment and violence against Haitians and stateless persons of Haitian descent continues in the Dominican Republic—these are just a few examples that have garnered domestic and international attention.

This Framework for Action builds upon reporting and advocacy that Human Rights First has conducted since 2002 as part of its efforts to combat all forms of bias-motivated violence across the globe. This document outlines some of the serious challenges that xenophobic and other bias-motivated violence presents to the protection of the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, stateless persons, migrants, and other persons viewed as “foreign.” The Framework for Action sets out concrete recommendations for States which, on the basis of their international obligations and other commitments, bear the primary responsibility for protecting all persons—including non-nationals—from xenophobic or other bias-motivated violence. Recognizing the important and differing roles of U.N. agencies, intergovernmental organizations, and other international entities, the Framework also includes recommendations for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and other bodies, according to their respective mandates and responsibilities.

The contributing factors, triggers, and focus of xenophobia can vary from country to country, with racist sentiments a driving force in some countries, and religious differences or economic factors sparking intolerance in others. What is common throughout is that the targets of xenophobic violence are usually marginalized communities that are often viewed as foreign, while the perpetrators of such violence often act with relative impunity.

In one serious and extreme manifestation of intolerance, xenophobia can be a motivating factor behind violent attacks on individuals and property. Xenophobic and other bias-motivated violence (in many countries referred to as “hate crime”) is a pernicious form of discrimination in which individuals are targeted because of their race, national or ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability, or other similar status.

Refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, displaced persons, and migrants are particularly vulnerable to such forms of violence as they are often distinguished by their appearance, language, religion and customs, particularly in largely homogenous societies. Discrimination, intolerance, and bias-motivated violence are often causes of displacement and flight. And, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has stressed, “Refugees who flee intolerance at home are increasingly finding more intolerance in the countries where they seek protection.” Earlier this year, UNHCR expressed its concern that “racism and discrimination have become a major protection challenge in many parts of the world, including in the region of North African and the Middle East, where escalating violence has particularly affected persons in need of international protection and has generated forced displacement in some of these countries.”

Xenophobic and other forms of bias-motivated violence can contribute to a range of difficulties for refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, migrants, and non-nationals, and can deprive these individuals of basic human rights protections. These populations are particularly vulnerable to bias-motivated violence, as they are often viewed as outsiders and may lack any kind of formal, permanent, or even temporary legal status. Xenophobic and bias-motivated violence can result in deaths, serious injuries, mass displacement, and a range of other protection challenges. In addition, fear of violence may prevent vulnerable individuals from seeking available services and protection—including education, medical care, food aid, and, for some, access to formal asylum procedures—for fear of being attacked at places where these services are offered.

Members of communities that fear violence cannot move freely in towns and cities, much less participate fully in the larger society. Even where bias-motivated violence does not involve severe personal attacks, the result may be progressive marginalization and exclusion, largely barring those under threat from the exercise of rights taken for granted by others. By undermining the shared value of equality, xenophobic violence threatens the very fabric of the increasingly diverse societies in which we live, impairing the equal enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms and weakening integration policies.

Though the most visible and brutal of these attacks may make the news headlines, the large majority of cases of violent attacks and day-to-day physical and verbal harassment remain under the radar. Underreporting of these crimes is endemic as refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and migrants without legal status may be afraid to identify themselves to local government authorities due to fear of deportation or mistrust of local law enforcement authorities.

States have the primary obligation to protect individuals—citizens and noncitizens, regardless of their legal status—from discrimination by addressing xenophobic and other forms of bias-motivated violence. Several key international treaties—including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Outcome Document of the Durban Review Conference, outline specific obligations and commitments of States to protect refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, and other persons of concern from discrimination and bias-motivated violent acts.

Some States are taking steps to address such violent acts as well as the climate of intolerance in which they occur. However, there is much more that States can and should do. Human Rights First has developed a comprehensive Ten-Point Plan for Combating Hate Crime, based on the organization’s extensive research, monitoring, reporting, and analysis of such violence over the last decade. Key elements of this plan are outlined below in the Recommendations for States, and the plan itself appears as Appendix IV to this document.

This year, States and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are celebrating a series of milestones, including the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. As States reaffirm their commitments to these conventions, and pledge to take action to address the protection challenges facing refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced and stateless persons, governments should commit to take the concrete steps outlined below to address the serious protection challenges faced by the targets of xenophobic violence. Key steps include:

  • Acknowledge and condemn acts of bias-motivated violence whenever they occur.
  • Enact hate crime laws, strengthen enforcement, and prosecute offenders.
  • Monitor and report on attacks.
  • Reach out to communities affected by violence to reduce fear, assist victims, and improve reporting of incidents.

International bodies, including U.N. agencies, can and should also take action to address xenophobic and other bias-motivated violence as a central protection challenge, playing complementary and collaborative roles given their various mandates and responsibilities. As outlined below, the UNHCR, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) have all taken some steps to address xenophobia and bias-motivated violence. However, there is more that these and other organizations should do—in close collaboration with States and civil society—to address the protection needs of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, stateless persons, migrants, and other non-nationals in the face of bias-motivated violence. Recommendations include:

  • Enhance operational guidance, strategies, and capacity.
  • Report xenophobic and other bias-violence incidents and provide assistance to victims.
  • Raise cases and advocate with States for improved responses and proactive action.

Increase collaboration, develop global, regional, and local strategies, and define leadership and other roles.


Published on December 4, 2011


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