In May of 2008, at least 62 people were murdered and many more injured in a wave of xenophobic violence that swept across South Africa. At an October 16 presentation by civil society experts at the South African Human Rights Commission, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in South Africa pointed out that for the murders during the violence, only one perpetrator was reportedly punished. In South Africa, as in many parts of the world, accountability for xenophobic hate crime is very rare.
The 2010 inquiry of the South African Human Rights Commission found that there are significant obstacles to access to justice for victims of xenophobic violence. However, the reforms recommended by the Commission have yet to be implemented. As experts noted during the October 16 briefing, xenophobic violence appears to be on the increase in 2012, with 50 suspected attacks in September alone.
Refugees and migrants in different parts of the world are subject to beatings and murders by armed mobs and targeted rapes, and their property is often destroyed or looted. Constant harassment and verbal abuse are commonplace. Like other forms of hate crime, xenophobic violence threatens social cohesion and spreads fear, preventing migrants and refugees from obtaining essential services, finding employment, or even reporting attacks to the police. Perpetrators of violence frequently go unpunished which sends a message that refugees and migrants can be attacked with impunity.
In July, reports of brutal xenophobic violence in Greece made headlines as refugees and migrants were beaten, dragged off buses, and chased through the streets of Athens. In June, reports highlighted attacks on refugees and migrant workers in Israel. A Human Rights First report issued in December 2011 cited incidents of xenophobic violence in 13 other countries.
Xenophobic violence is a major concern for UNHCR. Last month, during a meeting of UNHCR’s Executive Committee, Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller said that “racially motivated attacks and hate crimes against migrants and refugees have increased dramatically and have become an almost daily phenomenon in a number of countries.” She highlighted several examples of steps that have been taken in response to xenophobic violence – such as:
- In South Africa, where initiatives include a 24-hour hotline and a cooperative effort between UNHCR and the South African Police Service, and
- In Greece, where the Racist Violence Recording Network is working to promote “zero tolerance of hate crimes, as well as the protection of victims and witnesses, to enable them to denounce such acts without the fear of arrest or retaliation.”
In 2009, UNHCR issued a Guidance Note titled “Combating Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance through a Strategic Approach,” to provide initial guidance for UNHCR offices. To follow up on this strategy note, Human Rights First has urged UNHCR to document and evaluate effective models of combating xenophobic violence, and to disseminate these “best practices” to UNHCR staff around the world. This will help UNHCR staff and their local partners better respond to and advocate against xenophobic violence.
Despite ongoing efforts, further steps must be taken to address xenophobic violence. Human Rights First has outlined number of steps that states, UNHCR, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and civil society organizations should take:
- States should strengthen law enforcement and prosecute offenders; speak out against xenophobic violence and condemn incidents when they occur; monitor and report on hate crimes; and reach out to communities affected by xenophobic violence;
- UNHCR should collect and circulate good practice examples, enhance operational guidance, strategies and its capacity to address xenophobic violence; report incidents of xenophobic violence and advocate with states for improved responses;
- IOM should encourage political leaders and other public personalities to speak out against xenophobia and xenophobic violence; urge governments to improve responses to xenophobic violence; and ensure that staff are effectively trained in reporting and documenting incidents of xenophobic violence;
- OHCHR should continue to report on xenophobic violence and raise with states their duty to protect all within their borders; support and encourage national human rights institutions in their efforts to document hate crimes and work with states for improved responses; and work with UNHCR, IOM and other partners on a longer term plan to address xenophobic and other forms of bias-motivated violence; and
- Civil society should strengthen mechanisms to monitor and record incidents of xenophobic violence; urge states to take steps to address impunity for perpetrators of xenophobic violence; develop strong referral networks to improve access to legal, medical and other support for victims of xenophobic violence; and support and assist victims in reporting incidents of violence to the authorities and seeking recourse.
Governments—including the United States—should support UNHCR and other agencies so that they have the capacity to proactively address these challenges. Human Rights First has developed a 10-point plan of steps for states to take to address hate crimes, and has recommendations for the United States government on ways to address xenophobic violence and other forms of hate crime.
These steps would help to address impunity and send a clear message that xenophobic violence will not be tolerated.