Durban, South Africa There is an intrinsic connection between refugees and racism. Racism is a direct cause of refugee movements. Every year hundreds of thousands of people are forced to flee their homes because of racial discrimination and ethnic violence, such as the Roma in the Czech Republic, Kurds in Turkey, ethnic minority groups in Burma, Tamils in Sri Lanka, and Hutu in Burundi.
It is therefore essential that the World Conference Against Racism, which opens in Durban this Friday, put the spotlight on discrimination against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. This is the new racism of Europe and elsewhere.
Throughout Western Europe, asylum seekers, refugees and migrants have increasingly been the targets of racist attacks and harassment. A spate of anti-immigrant racist violence gripped Germany a year ago when a bomb explosion in Düsseldorf seriously injured nine immigrants. Asylum and immigration have become hot political issues in Europe. The subject dominated the agenda during the British general election campaign this year.
Debate over asylum in Britain took place in a highly charged xenophobic climate, and government and opposition politicians alike were accused of fueling public hostility toward refugees and asylum seekers. A British civil liberties group reported to the UN Human Rights Committee in July that the negative portrayal of asylum seekers during the general election campaign directly contributed to the rise in racist attacks against asylum seekers, and contributed to heightened racial tensions in general. Those who flee racism and ethnic violence frequently face a hostile reception in their countries of refuge. Opposition to refugees is growing in traditionally generous refugee hosting countries such as Guinea, Pakistan and Iran, which are starting to close their doors to refugees, claiming that they are overburdened with their own problems and fatigued after years of sheltering millions of refugees with little international assistance.
Racism also presents an obstacle to solving refugee crises. Refugees who were forced to leave their own countries because of their racial or ethnic origin often find themselves unable to return home. More needs to be done to address the ethnic violence and discrimination that cause people to flee their homes in the first place, and greater assistance should be given to those countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East that host the majority of the world's refugees.
Politicians and the media have a responsibility to avoid inflammatory and negative portrayals of refugees and migrants that fuel public opposition and contribute to the rise in racist violence. Governments should protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and take steps to reverse policies and practices that discriminate against them.
More must be done to educate the general public about the positive contributions that migrants, asylum seekers and refugees can make to their new societies.
Rachael Reilly is Refugee Policy Director for Human Rights Watch.