A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (Article 1A, 1951 Refugee Convention).
There is an inextricable link between racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and the forced displacement and ill-treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons. Racism is both a cause and a result of forced displacement and an obstacle to its resolution.
Forced displacement has become a major global phenomenon. An estimated 50 million people worldwide have been uprooted from their homes.
A large number of these people are victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Racism affects forcibly displaced people at every stage of the displacement cycle:
Racism in countries of origin: the cause of forced displacement
The 1951 Refugee Convention clearly recognizes the central role that racism and ethnic discrimination play in causing refugee movements. Article 1A of the 1951 Refugee Convention declares a refugee to be “a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’, is outside his country and is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of his country”.
A large number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons have been forcibly displaced because of their race, ethnicity or nationality. “Ethnic cleansing” is becoming an alarmingly common phenomenon in internal conflicts, leading to both mass exodus of refugees to neighboring countries and mass internal displacement. Nationality disputes have also played a role in several contemporary refugee crises, where certain ethnic groups have been arbitrarily stripped of their citizenship before being forcibly expelled.
Racism in host countries: treatment of refugees and asylum seekers
Not only are refugees and asylum seekers fleeing situations of racial and ethnic discrimination and violence, but they are increasingly facing such hostility in countries of refuge. In the last decade, especially since the end of the Cold War era, when refugees have lost their strategic geo-political significance, there has been a global trend of xenophobia and increasing hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers. This trend is most visible in the industrialized and affluent countries of the West, where over the past decade there has been an avalanche of restrictive policies targeting today’s asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. But even traditionally generous, developing host countries, often overburdened by their own social and economic problems, have become increasingly reluctant to host large refugee populations.
Intolerance and discrimination against refugees and asylum seekers in host countries manifests itself in various forms, including:
Restrictive entry policies that obstruct the right of asylum seekers and refugees to freely leave their own country and undermine the fundamental right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. Policies often target specific groups of asylum seekers on the basis of their ethnicity, race or nationality in order to stem asylum flows from particular countries. These include measures such as:
- Visa controls, carrier sanctions and the deployment of immigration officials as “airline liaison officers” in common refugee-producing countries to assist airline staff with pre-departure checks;
- The application of so-called “safe third country” and “safe country of origin” policies, which risk either directly or indirectly returning refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened, in violation of the fundamental principle of non-refoulment, and which deny asylum seekers access to a full and fair assessment of their asylum claims, with full rights of appeal;
- Proposals to respond to refugee crises in regions of origin through mechanisms such as “safe havens” and “protection within the country”, in addition to the selective admission of fixed quotas of refugees from certain regions;
Restrictions on the legal entry of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants have forced many to turn to the services of corrupt and dangerous human trafficking syndicates who are able to circumvent routine migration controls – often with serious repercussions for those involved.
Intolerance and Discrimination can take the form of racist and xenophobic portrayals of asylum seekers; refugees and migrants, in the media as criminals thus fueling feelings of hatred and contempt being against refugees and migrants on their territory.
Another form is the use of xenophobic and racist rhetoric by politicians and public officials, and the manipulation of xenophobic hate feelings and fears, often for political gain.
Refugees/asylum seekers and migrants are often the victims of racist attacks, with law enforcement agencies often failing to take adequate action to bring perpetrators to justice.