Why Anti-Xenophobia Campaigns May Backfire

Neukölln, January 2018.

Even as the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants and twin United Nations-led global compact processes seek to improve the global response to people on the move, states are increasingly hostile toward them. Indeed, anti-refugee rhetoric seems to be everywhere these days. From right-wing populist governments in Europe to President Donald Trump in the United States, forced migrants fleeing for their lives are being framed as dangerous, illegal and unwelcome.

In some cases, xenophobic rhetoric is being taken a step further – transforming into acts of hate. In 2016, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon warned that “xenophobic and racist responses to refugees and migrants seem to be reaching new levels of stridency, frequency and public acceptance.” In Australia, policies that place asylum seekers in detention are often seen to be underpinned by the desire to preserve “white Australia.” Hungary has seen extensive fearmongering and anti-migrant messaging, as has the United States during its recent midterm elections and throughout the Trump Administration. Likewise, a number of attacks on Somali refugees in Nairobi have been reported in Kenya, as have attacks on Venezuelans seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. New research has shown that “transnational dynamics like the ‘war on terror’ have increased far-right extremism, prejudiced attitudes toward migrants, and international xenophobia.”

Broadly speaking, governments need to be held accountable for keeping refugees and other migrants safe on their soil. But what specific actions can be taken to combat xenophobic acts against foreigners? Research shows that when local actors link up with transnational advocacy organizations, it can help pressure governments to alter insufficient policies or offer protection; it can also name and shame authorities to respect rights they otherwise might neglect. Likewise, public awareness campaigns have sought to address bias and emphasize shared humanity. South Africa’s Roll Back Xenophobia campaign, for example, enlisted the help of refugees, migrant workers, police, civil society and the media to frame xenophobia as a human-rights issue with roots in the apartheid era.

However, sometimes pro-migrant programming can backfire. It can isolate migrants or minorities within the host population by reinforcing existing boundaries and fueling tensions. According to Loren Landau and E. Tendayi Achiume of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, “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.” Indeed, emphasizing that these groups have international allies can build resentment and anger among disadvantaged citizens who feel forgotten and excluded.

Moreover, to protect their own security, some displaced persons wish to stay out of the spotlight. Many prefer not to be clustered in camps but blended into communities where they will not stand out to those who may pose a threat. They want to keep a low profile and choose not to register as refugees – particularly if they are in danger of persecution by the authorities, who may have contributed to their displacement.

In addition to posing a potential danger, it is also unclear how well pro-migrant programs actually work. United Nations University researchers Nicola Pocock and Clara Chan write, “Progressive political movements championing an inclusive response to in-flows of migrants and refugees have struggled to counter extremist narratives and social distrust in host communities.” They further note that anti-racism and anti-prejudice reduction campaigns on TV, and public service announcements on radio and billboards, have not yet proven effective.

German elections poster. Karl-Marx-Straße, September 2017.

Furthermore, initiatives such as community dialogues and cultural and sports festivals can bring people together, but are usually one-off events and may not be effective in reaching those responsible for violence motivated by xenophobia. At best, they are good ways to generate awareness, but they do not address situations in which political leaders may actually benefit from stirring tensions. At worst, these initiatives can become politically charged and divisive – separating people even more.

So what steps can be taken to combat xenophobia? Responses should first and foremost recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, coordination and collaboration on how to combat xenophobia should take place among different groups, including migrants, refugees, civil society groups, NGOs, UN actors, host communities and government actors.

Those looking to combat xenophobia should also look for ways to piggyback anti-xenophobia efforts on top of other, widely popular policies and priorities. Journalistic reporting should not emphasize extremes that paint migrants as either criminals or gifted/prodigies, as this is not helpful or realistic. More broadly, consistent, meaningful interactions among refugees, host communities and governments are needed to prevent violence that is motivated by xenophobia in the first place. Further research and new, creative thinking around how to foster these interactions is, therefore, an important part of the path forward.

Research also shows that instead of focusing on attitudes, which are unreliable predictors of behaviour, programs should look at the motivations of those committing violence against refugees. The Diversity Initiative in Ukraine, for example, sought to do just this through a multipronged approach that drew together different actors for coordination and advocacy. This might mean targeting government officials and law-enforcement agents who participate in extortion, harassment, arbitrary detention and selective enforcement of the laws.

Programs that target the instigators, political entrepreneurs and local leaders who capitalize on distrustful climates and who get political or economic gains from discrimination and violent exclusion of “outsiders” are more likely to be effective. Many of these instigators were found to be motivated by rewards related to land, jobs or political office. Stirring up reactions to policies – often by painting a negative picture of immigrants – is sometimes the basis for xenophobic acts and can offer political advantages. Certainly, politicians in the United States and Europe, such as Trump and Marine Le Pen, have used such tactics.

Pocock and Chan also write that anti-discrimination interventions should try to target “prejudices harboured by front-line public sector workers and policymakers, which could translate into discriminatory treatment.” Focusing on these drivers is thus a way to deal with the root causes of xenophobic behaviours, such as marginalization and exclusion, rather than just their consequences. This will contribute to the effectiveness of anti-xenophobia campaigns, thus improving the situation for host communities and refugees alike.

Turkish immigrant rights activist. Mitte, February 2017.

This article has been adapted from a section of Sarah Deardorff Miller’s World Refugee Council research paper, Xenophobia Toward Refugees and Other Forced MigrantsThis article originally appeared on Refugees Deeply. You can find the original here. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved. For important news about the global migration crisis, you can sign up to the Refugees email listThe views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.