Racism and Human Rights

Refugees, Asylum seekers, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons

Throughout the world, refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and internally displaced persons are the victims of racial discrimination, racist attacks, xenophobia and ethnic intolerance. Racism is both a cause and a product of forced displacement, and an obstacle to its solution. In 2000, some 150 million migrants were living outside their countries of birth. Of these, some 50 million people were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, and human rights violations.

Industrialized states have introduced a barrage of restrictive policies and practices over the past decade targeting asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. Negative and inaccurate portrayals of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the media and the inflammatory, xenophobic rhetoric of politicians and public officials in many Western countries have contributed to a climate of hostility towards these groups. There has been an alarming rise in racist and xenophobic violence against asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants in many industrialized countries.

Even traditionally generous host countries in the developing world, often over-burdened with their own social and economic problems, have become increasingly reluctant to host large refugee populations. Faced with mass influxes of refugees from neighboring countries, many fleeing racist violence in their own countries, governments have closed their borders or attempted to push refugees back over the border. In some cases, explicitly xenophobic and inflammatory statements by political leaders have resulted in attacks on refugee populations, widespread arrests, detention, and even gang rape of refugee women.

The situation

Racism as a root cause of forcible displacement

  • In countries such as Burundi, Burma, Bhutan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia millions of people have been forced to flee their homes as a result of ethnic violence, racism, racial discrimination, and intolerance. In some cases people flee across borders as refugees, in others they are internally displaced within their own countries.

Racism in host countries

Border closures

  • Increasingly, refugees who flee situations of ethnic intolerance and violence are unable to find safe refuge in neighboring countries. Many countries, such as Pakistan, Tajikistan, Guinea, and Thailand have closed their borders to mass influxes of refugees, pushed people back, and failed to provide safe refuge. At the start of the Kosovo refugee crisis in April 1999, for example, Macedonia closed its border to Kosovar Albanian refugees, arguing that the mass influx of refugees of Albanian ethnic origin could critically destabilize the fragile ethnic balance in the country. Refugees were stranded in appalling conditions at the border between Kosovo and Macedonia for days, until the Macedonian government was persuaded to reopen its border after some Western countries agreed to airlift refugees out of the country.

Fortress Europe

  • The smaller numbers of refugees who arrive in the industrialized states of Western Europe, the United States, and Australia face an equally hostile welcome. Over the past decade the harmonization of E.U. asylum policies and the emergence of a fortress Europe approach to asylum and immigration have made it increasingly difficult for certain nationalities and ethnic groups to reach Western European countries.

Barriers to entry

  • The imposition of strict visa requirements for nationals of common refugee-producing countries, many of which have well-documented human rights problems, such as China, Burma, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Turkmenistan, and Rwanda make it almost impossible for refugees fleeing these countries to travel legally to the European Union. Refugees from such countries are highly unlikely to be able to obtain visas from the embassy of their country of destination prior to departure, and are thus forced to flee using invalid or forged documents, or with no documents at all.

  • The imposition of heavy fines on airlines and other carriers who transport asylum seekers and migrants without valid documentation, stringent pre-departure immigration checks by airline officials to avoid these fines, and the posting of immigration officials from asylum states to assist in pre-departure immigration checks in common refugee-producing countries, such as Turkey, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, India, and Afghanistan, all pose further obstacles to individuals from particular countries from exercising their fundamental rights to freely leave their country and seek asylum abroad.

Detention of asylum seekers and migrants

  • Those asylum seekers and migrants who manage to evade pre-departure border controls face punitive measures on arrival. In countries such as the U.S. and Australia, for example, asylum seekers and migrants arriving without valid documents face immediate, mandatory detention often for periods of months or years. In the U.S., asylum seekers and migrants are frequently held in penal facilities alongside accused or convicted criminals, with limited access to NGOs and legal advice or assistance. In Greece, undocumented migrants awaiting deportation, including some who had submitted asylum claims, are held in appalling conditions in detention facilities, with severe overcrowding and lack of access to fresh air or exercise, adequate sleeping accommodations, adequate food, or adequate access to medical care.

Human trafficking and smuggling

  • The growing barriers to legal entry into E.U. and other Western countries has meant that asylum seekers and migrants increasingly turn to the services of opportunistic, corrupt, and dangerous human trafficking and smuggling syndicates who are able to circumvent routine migration controls, often with great risk to their life, liberty, and freedom.

Xenophobia and racism in the public domain

  • Restrictive immigration policies are implemented within a climate of hostility and xenophobia towards refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. Politicians and the media have shamelessly manipulated xenophobic and racist fears in order to muster short-term political support. Politicians, the media, and the general public have portrayed asylum seekers as bogus and criminals because of the "illegal" way in which they are forced to enter Western countries. Refugees and migrants are generally blamed for the social and economic ills of society, including rising crime and unemployment. All of these trends have contributed to the alarming rise in racist violence and xenophobia against refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, particularly throughout Europe, sometimes with the complicit involvement, or tacit approval, of law enforcement agents, and usually without effective sanctions against the perpetrators.

Racism as an obstacle to solving refugee crises

  • Racism and ethnic intolerance continue to prevent refugees from exercising their right to return to their countries or places of origin. Some 100,000 refugees from Bhutan, over one million refugees and displaced persons from the former Yugoslavia, an estimated 6 million Palestinian refugees, and some 30,000 black Mauritanians have all been obstructed from returning to their countries or place of origin on grounds of their race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality.

Disparity in the international response

  • There is gross regional disparity in the international response to refugee crises. The Kosovo refugee crisis, one of the largest and most high profile refugee crises in Europe since the Second World War, generated an outpouring of international support and assistance. This has not been matched in refugee situations in other parts of the world, namely Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Large, long-term refugee populations in countries such as Pakistan with some two million Afghan refugees, Iran with 1.5 million Afghan refugees, Guinea with 400,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees, and Tanzania with over half a million refugees from the Great Lakes region, have been sorely neglected by the international community. The lack of international assistance to these refugee situations has resulted in diminishing protection, poor living conditions, and an increasing unwillingness by host states to take in new influxes of refugees.

Recent developments

The 1951 Refugee Convention

  • In July 2001 the international community marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. States will meet for the first time in Switzerland in December 2001 to reaffirm their commitment to the Convention. Similarly, in October 1999, E.U. countries reaffirmed their commitment to the centrality of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol at the special meeting of the European Council on freedom, security, and justice at Tampere, Finland. Despite these positive developments, several countries, including the U.K and Austria, have challenged the continuing relevance and efficacy of the 1951 Convention to deal with modern-day migratory movements and proposed far-reaching revisions.

The 1990 Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers

  • By August 2001, the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families had 16 ratifications and 10 signatories. The Convention will come into effect after the 20th instrument of ratification. Uruguay was the last country to ratify the Convention in February 2001.

Developments in the United Kingdom

  • A Kurdish refugee from Turkey was stabbed to death in an unprovoked racist attack, and an Iranian asylum seeker seriously injured in a subsequent stabbing attack on a deprived inner-city housing estate in Glasgow, Scotland in August 2001. The Scottish Refugee Council reported 70 racially motivated attacks on asylum seekers in Glasgow between August and January 2001. Refugee advocates blamed the U.K. government's controversial dispersal scheme, resulting in the relocation of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the U.K., often in deprived areas far away from their compatriot communities, for the rise in racist violence. They also blamed the media and politicians for creating ill-feeling amongst local residents by reinforcing the view that many of the refugees were bogus.

  • In the United Kingdom, a report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found that public statements depicting asylum seekers in a negative way, often as a threat to security, economic stability and social peace, have contributed to a climate in which episodes of racial attacks and harassment against asylum seekers, most notably Roma, have increased.

  • In May 2001, after the extension of the U.K. Race Relations Act to cover immigration officers, the U.K. Home Office gave immigration officers permission to discriminate against a named list of ethnic groups, including Tamils, Kurds, Pontic Greeks, Roma, Somalis, Albanians, Afghans and ethnic Chinese. The Home Office justified the decision, stating that it was recognized that it was necessary to discriminate on the grounds of nationality or ethnic origin. Officials argued that the move was not a matter of race but of nationality and ethnic origin.

Developments in Australia

  • In July 2000, the U.N. Human Rights Committee criticized Australia for its mandatory detention policies and for not informing, nor allowing, NGOs access to inform detainees of their right to seek legal advice. Asylum seekers were kept in remote detention centers thousands of miles away from any major city.

  • In various inflammatory and xenophobic statements on asylum and immigration in Australia between November 1999 and August 2001, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Phillip Ruddock, stated interalia: that mandatory detention policies protected the Australian public against communicable diseases brought in by illegals; that chemical injections for detainees needed to be more comprehensively implemented to prevent disturbances in immigration detention centers; and that whole villages of Iraqis and people from neighboring countries were packing up in preparation for illegal travel to Australia.

Developments in Guinea

  • In Guinea, President Lansana Conte made a series of inflammatory public speeches in September and October 2000 in which he indiscriminately blamed refugees for the growing insecurity and called on the Guinean population to defend their country against foreign invasions. Conte's speech precipitated widespread attacks by police, soldiers, and civilian militias against thousands of refugees in the camps and in the capital Conakry, resulting in the arbitrary arrest, detention and beatings of thousands of refugees and the rape, including gang rape, of dozens of women.

Developments in the Russian Federation

  • Following the bombings in Moscow in September 1999, city and regional officials implemented a widespread and systematic repression of suspected migrants from the Caucasus. Newcomers were ordered to re-register and most non-Russians were rejected, many of them ethnic Chechens. Citing security concerns, Moscow city police also rounded up more than 20,000 non-Moscovite minorities and expelled thousands from the city. A campaign of fear followed including residential raids, arbitrary identity checks on the street, detention, and violence.

Developments in Bangladesh

  • In February 1999, Bangladeshi officials expelled 250 undocumented Rohingya families after villagers claimed that they were taking their jobs. Human Rights Watch learnt that community leaders in the slums around Cox's Bazar were instructed to identify those Rohingya families and homes in their respective communities and to submit lists of their names to the authorities.

Key Recommendations

  • States should recognize that discrimination against refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, and internally displaced persons is a contemporary form of racism. Governments and regional bodies should take steps to reverse policies and practices that discriminate against refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants; reinforce the existing international refugee protection regime; and introduce new protection standards where necessary.

  • All states should ratify and fully implement the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol and ensure that these instruments are applied to all asylum seekers and refugees without discrimination. Those states that have maintained a geographical limitation incompatible with the non- discriminatory intention of the 1967 Protocol should withdraw it.

  • The fundamental principles of non-refoulement and non-discrimination enshrined in these international instruments should be scrupulously observed. In particular governments should not return asylum seekers to so-called "safe third countries" where they may be at risk of direct or indirect refoulement, or other serious human rights violations. States should immediately cease the discriminatory practice of excluding asylum seekers on the basis of their country of origin without a serious consideration of their asylum claim. Such practices could result in returning refugees to countries where they may face persecution, torture, and even death.

  • States should ratify the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

  • States should ensure that they respond urgently, effectively, and without discrimination to situations of mass displacement and humanitarian crises regardless of geographical proximity or political interests. States should take urgent action to address the needs of the 25 to 30 million internally displaced persons worldwide. In particular, states should apply the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, particularly those provisions relating to non-discrimination.

  • States should take immediate steps to reverse asylum and immigration policies and directives that discriminate on the basis of race, nationality, and ethnicity. In particular, policies such as visa requirements for nationals of common refugee producing countries, carrier sanctions, the posting of immigration officials in countries of origin, pre-departure immigration checks, and mandatory detention policies should be scrupulously evaluated to ensure that they do not discriminate on the grounds of race, nationality or ethnicity.

  • States should ensure that they respond effectively to and fully investigate all incidents of racial and related violence against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; that they provide compensation and redress to the victims; and take active measures to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators.

  • Governments and public officials should avoid the direct or indirect use of language that may contribute to a hostile environment within which racism, xenophobia and related intolerance against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants flourish and acts of racist violence are rationalized; they should counteract inaccurate, racist and xenophobic stereotypes of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the media; and encourage informed public debate on asylum and immigration matters.