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Top 10 of 2008 - Issue #5: Xenophobia Rising

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Top 10 of 2008 - Issue #5: Xenophobia Rising

A mother and child from the Democratic Republic of Congo moved to a refugee shelter after the xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

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 war.

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 U.S. 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.