When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Migrant Lives

Do Anti-Xenophobia Campaigns Work?

At best, pro-migrant advocacy raises awareness. At worst, it reinforces tensions, new research shows.

Anti-xenophobia march in Barcelona, Spain
Anti-xenophobia march in Barcelona, Spain
Sarah Deardorff Miller

NEW YORK — Even as the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants and twin UN-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. And in some cases, xenophobic rhetoric is being taken further still — transforming into acts of hate.

In 2016, UN 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.

What specific actions can be taken to combat xenophobic acts against foreigners?

Likewise, a number of attacks on Somali refugees in Nairobi have been reported in Kenya, as have attacks on Venezuelans seeking refuge in neighboring 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."

Unintended consequences

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.

Anti-xenophobia march in Cape Town — Photo: Janah Hattingh

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. "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," write United Nations University researchers Nicola Pocock and Clara Chan. They also note that anti-racism and anti-prejudice reduction campaigns on TV, and public service announcements on radio and billboards, have not yet proven effective.

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.

Creative thinking

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.

Certainly, politicians in the United States and Europe have used such tactics.

Research also shows that instead of focusing on attitudes, which are unreliable predictors of behavior, 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 multi-pronged 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 harbored 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 behaviors, 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.


*This article has been adapted from a section of Sarah Deardorff Miller's World Refugee Council research paper, "Xenophobia Toward Refugees and Other Forced Migrants."

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

Geopolitics

Utter Pessimism, What Israelis And Palestinians Share In Common

Right now, according to a joint survey of Israelis and Palestinians, hopes for a peaceful solution of coexistence simply don't exist. The recent spate of violence is confirmation of the deepest kind of pessimism on both sides for any solution other than domination of the other.

An old Palestinian protester waves Palestinian flag while he confronts the Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the village of Beit Dajan near the West Bank city of Nablus.

A Palestinian protester confronts Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the West Bank village of Beit Dajan on Jan. 6.

Pierre Haski

-Analysis-

PARIS — Just before the latest outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, a survey of public opinion among the two peoples provided a key to understanding the current situation unfolding before our eyes.

It was a joint study, entitled "Palestinian-Israeli Pulse", carried out by two research centers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, which for years have been regularly asking the same questions to both sides.

The result is disastrous: not only is the support for the two-state solution — Israel and Palestine side by side — at its lowest point in two decades, but there is now a significant share of opinion on both sides that favors a "non-democratic" solution, i.e., a single state controlled by either the Israelis or Palestinians.

This captures the absolute sense of pessimism commonly felt regarding the chances of the two-state option ever being realized, which currently appears to be our grim reality today. But the results are also an expression of the growing acceptance on both sides that it is inconceivable for either state to live without dominating the other — and therefore impossible to live in peace.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest