Top 10 Migration Issues of 2008
Issue #5 — Xenophobia Rising
December 4, 2008
Anger toward immigrants, refugees, and ethnic or religious minorities has
persisted in pockets across the world since time immemorial, taking the form
of riots, expulsions, political rhetoric, party candidates, protests, and crackdowns.
Unfortunately, 2008 brought a new wave of xenophobia, most notably in South
Africa and Italy.
In South Africa, where antiforeigner sentiment has long simmered, the violence
that caught the world's attention began in mid-May in the Johannesburg township
of Alexandra, allegedly because of a series of robberies. Two immigrants were
killed, at least 40 were injured, several women were raped, and about 100 immigrants
sought safety at a local police station, according to media reports.
For poor South Africans, the idea of immigrants taking jobs, undercutting
wages, committing crimes, and finding success as shopkeepers were justifications
for the attacks. Before the month was over, South Africans had destroyed thousands
of homes and immigrant-owned businesses, killing more than 60 people in all,
including some South Africans.
An estimated 100,000 foreigners were displaced, according to the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Among them were Somalis, Ethiopians,
Congolese, Zimbabweans, and Mozambicans, many of whom had sought safety in
South Africa after fleeing conflict in their homelands.
By the end of May, UNHCR reported some 42,000 migrants, including refugees
and asylum seekers, were sheltering at 95 makeshift sites. In August, as the
South African government started closing temporary shelters, saying it was
safe for foreigners to return to South African neighborhoods, UNHCR began repatriating
those who preferred to go home.
"The locals made it clear that they don't want us back, and I will not put
my family at risk. I may as well do that in the country of my birth," a man
from the Democratic Republic of Congo told UNHCR of his decision to return
home, where relative peace in his village has returned after years of civil
In Italy, stereotypes of Roma (an ethnic minority also called gypsies) as
criminals had hardened in late 2007 after a Roma man was accused of brutally
murdering an Italian woman.
Right-wing Italian politicians made crime and illegal immigration central
themes of the 2008 parliamentary campaign although statistics show crime in
Italy has not increased. The April elections doubled the strength of the anti-immigration
Northern League in parliament, brought back Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister,
and ushered in a right-wing mayor of Rome who promised during his campaign
to boost surveillance and deport 20,000 immigrants with criminal records.
In May, local residents set
fire to Roma camps on the outskirts of Naples because of a 16-year-old Roma
girl's attempt to kidnap an Italian baby. That same month, Italian police arrested
nearly 400 people, most of them foreign citizens (Romanians and North Africans),
and expelled 53 people, mostly Nigerians and Albanians, in a countrywide sweep.
The Italian government drew criticism from the European Parliament and human-rights
organizations over the summer for its proposal to fingerprint all Roma, including
children, in a census of Roma camps. The European Commission, however, said
in September that the measure is not discriminatory.
Beyond Italy, Roma have been the target of attacks this fall in the Czech
Republic. In November, 500 black-masked people attempted to attack a Roma ghetto
in Litvinov, a town where unemployment is double the national average. The
crowd clashed with police, and 14 people were injured.
Some fear xenophobia could rise in many countries in 2009 as economies continue
to weaken, unemployment rises, and native-born populations see immigrants as
competitors for jobs.
These sentiments are already present in many immigrant-destination countries.
According to a recent transatlantic survey funded by the US German Marshall
Fund and other foundations, 65 percent of Americans and Britons said immigration
will lead to higher taxes as a result of increased demand for social services
by immigrants. Just over half of Americans (51 percent) and Britons (52 percent)
thought that immigrants are currently taking jobs away from native-born workers.
And the majority in the United Kingdom (53 percent), Poland (53 percent),
Germany (57 percent), the Netherlands (61 percent), and Italy (66 percent)
agreed that immigration will increase crime.
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