Why Localization Could Be the Key to Overcoming Xenophobia


SEATTLE — In September, the U.N. held a summit to address the growing migrant crisis. Over the course of the meeting, world leaders from the Member States discussed core issues exacerbating the problem. One of those issues was xenophobia.

Xenophobic rhetoric contributes to global distrust of refugees. Fear and distrust then keep millions of people fleeing persecution from finding safety abroad. Although the U.N.’s global efforts are powerful and important, localization could be the key to overcoming xenophobia.

The Summit

The goal of the U.N. Summit on Refugees and Migrants was to create a sense of harmony among the Member States at a point when discord is par for the course.

According to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Xenophobic and racist responses to refugees and migrants seem to be reaching new levels of stridency, frequency and public acceptance.” During the meeting, world leaders signed the New York Declaration to address that issue.

The agreement, which is designed to operate on a global scale, calls for protection of refugee rights and shared responsibility for the migrant crisis. One commitment expressed in the document is to “strongly condemn xenophobia against refugees and migrants and support a global campaign to counter it.”

The Problem with a Globalized Approach

Loren B. Landau and E. Tendayi Achiume of IRIN argue that localization could be the key to alleviating xenophobia toward refugees and migrants in recipient nations.

In a recent statement, they said, “Condemnation from the outside is rarely effective for leaders who scorn the international system.” Beyond that, the scholars note that issues with xenophobia are not exclusive to the migrant crisis.

Xenophobia’s breadth can be seen in political rhetoric across the U.S. and Europe. While it often targets migrants and refugees, language that creates dissonance between racial and religious groups affects naturalized citizens as well.

Normalized fear and hatred then contribute to systemic problems on a national level. Attempting to deal with those problems with sweeping global measures could be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

“Heavy-handed anti-xenophobia campaigns aimed at protecting the rights of foreign minorities risk drawing them out into the open, enhancing their visibility, and making their foreignness the issue where it might not have been,” Landau and Achiume said.

In a piece for The Namibian, Jacques Mushaandja explains xenophobia in relative terms to issues like homophobia, racism and sexism. In his words, “We must understand that in the broader sense, xenophobia is also an issue of diversity.”

Mushaandja makes an important distinction between erasure and unity. There is a way to highlight shared humanity without undermining diversity. While studying xenophobia in South Africa, he noticed a link between lack of interest in shared histories and the presence of xenophobia in individuals, communities and the nation as a whole.

By acknowledging neutral shared qualities like geography and history, a sense of commonality can be achieved in a way that does not further demonize entire groups.

Another issue with the New York Declaration is that it has created a system of dependence on the Member States on the road to overcoming xenophobia.

Organizations like Amnesty International are hesitant about these proposals. Instead of focusing on implementing tailored, nation-specific programs, the New York Declaration agreement places greater emphasis on getting all nations to agree on steadfast systems.

The idea is to ensure that all Member States are doing the same amount of legwork. This framing deemphasizes the need for measures tailored to communities and countries.

How and Why Localized Projects Work

Overcoming xenophobia requires a more nuanced approach. Such nuance is often lost when the migrant crisis is viewed from afar.

According to Landau and Achiume, “A global anti-xenophobia campaign that misses these nuances will at best be a waste of resources, and at worst a generator of perverse outcomes. Those crafting its details must avoid the all-too-common pitfall of failing to account for local realities.”

They recommend the use of grassroots campaigns that work with local authorities and leaders. Last year in South Africa, for example, government officials took a community-driven approach to overcoming xenophobia.

Following attacks in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, President Jacob Zuma scheduled meetings to discuss anti-xenophobic migration policies. He met with youth, women’s empowerment, business and creative groups to ensure that refugees and migrants are safely integrated into society.

Police Minister Nathi Nhleko and other local authorities even created a campaign called We Are One Humanity. This program fully embodies Mushaandja’s ideas about creating commonality while celebrating diversity to ease xenophobic tensions. Such action also gets to the heart of Landau’s and Achiume’s argument.

Representatives from Human Rights First also agree that globalized statements serve as valuable jumping-off places for localized practices. From there, communities can rise up against fear and hatred in ways that make the most sense for their residents in particular.

While global condemnation of hateful attitudes is vital, it does not inherently lead to practical solutions for overcoming xenophobia. If more countries follow South Africa’s lead, however, the U.N.’s goals can be achieved one community at a time.

Madeline Distasio

Photo: Flickr


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