Racial Discrimination – The Rise of Xenophobic Attacks by Florence C. IMO



The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is one of those initiatives established by the United Nations to positively pilot the course of human race and to combat the challenges inherent in human existence. It was formed six years after a ruthless massacre of sixty nine people by police on March 21, 1960 during a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville , South Africa , against apartheid   “Pass Laws “.

Everyone is entitled to human rights without discrimination. The rights to equality and non-discrimination are cornerstones of human rights law. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, discriminatory practices are still widespread, including racial, ethnic, religious and nationality based profiling and incitement to hatred.  The ideology underlying racist practices often includes the idea that humans can be subdivided into distinct groups that are different in their social behaviour and inmate capacities and ranked as inferior or superior. It is against background that in 1996, the United Nations General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

Xenophobic attacks in South Africa Credit: NAN

The  United Nations Convention , Article  19 of January 1969,   made member states to adopt and ratify the Charter that “ based on the principles of the dignity and equality inherent in all human beings, and that all Member States have pledged  to take joint and separate action, in co-operation with the organization, for the achievement of one of the purposes of the United Nations which is to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.  Considering that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set out therein, without distinction of any kind. ”

While the concepts of race and ethnicity are considered to be separate in contemporary social science, the two terms have a long history of equivalence in both popular usage and older social science literature. “Ethnicity” is often used in a sense close to one traditionally attributed to “race”: the division of human groups based on qualities assumed to be essential or innate to the group (e.g. shared ancestry or shared behaviour). There is no distinction between the terms “racial” and “ethnic” discrimination. The UN convention further concludes that superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and there is no justification for racial discrimination, anywhere, in theory or in practice.

Xenophobic Attacks a form of Racial Discrimination

Racism and xenophobia victimize a wide range of communities across Europe and North America by reason of their origins, and the colour of their skin. These communities under threat, often distinguished by their ethnic or national origin, include both national minorities and people of immigrant origin, citizens and noncitizens, long-time residents and newcomers.

Whether citizens or noncitizens, people of African origin stand out as among the principal subjects of racism and xenophobia in many parts of Europe and North America. In the United States, African American citizens continued to represent the largest group of victims of hate crime violence—a legacy of systemic state sanctioned discrimination that began to be remedied only in the 1960’s. In Western Europe, citizens of African origin, many of them descended from the people of former colonies, faced ongoing discrimination and violence in parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union,

Xenophobic attacks in South Africa 

Recently, we are witnessing a resurgence of attacks by South Africans against foreigners whom they claim are taking their jobs and responsible for many societal ills. While they have constituted legal ways of enforcing changes or protest, many South Africans are seen attacking, killing these foreigners and as well as looting their assets. These incidents took place in many cities like Pretoria this month, but police have been reluctant to characterise the attacks as being directed against foreigners. Anti-immigrant violence has flared sporadically in South Africa against a background of near-record unemployment, with foreigners being accused of criminal activity and taking jobs from locals.

The South African Home Affairs Minister Malus Gigabit last week acknowledged violence had flared up against foreigners this year, saying that “unfortunately, xenophobic violence is not new in South Africa.” Although the police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse marches by hundreds of anti-immigrant protesters in Pretoria, after mobs looted stores believed to belong to immigrants. The situation is yet to come under control as there are still pockets of unrests here and there.

In most countries , the causes of xenophobia is attributed to the underlying socioeconomic challenges which lay the foundations for increased competitions for employment , basic social services and business opportunities within and between various communities . In recent times, South Africa has witnessed a greater influx of immigrants. Many of the underlying tensions between foreigners and locals had roots on the aforementioned quest for existence which sparked off the xenophobic violence of 2008 when about sixty two people including South Africans were killed. Within a space of three months , the violence  spread around the major cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria, businesses were looted, homes wrecked and thousands of foreigners were forced to flee and seek refuge in makeshift camps . The trigger for the attacks was blamed in part on comments made by King Goodwill Zwelithini, at a rally in Pongola, where the monarchs is reported to have said that foreigners were changing the nature of South African society : “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave “. Within seven months of the said times , United Nations sent rapid response squad headed by Judge Nari Pillay, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, found lapses and shortcomings by law-enforcement agents.

Counting down to the moment, xenophobic attacks seem to have risen sharply. China Ngubane, a Durban based activist and researcher who worked closely with victims of xenophobic violence last year, once said that effective preventive action by officials and law enforcement agencies is still missing and that the plaque still lives on. Very recently many South African nationals have been seen displaying brutal justice on some other foreign nationals. This continued massacre should no longer be tolerated in South Africa and other parts of the world. One of the ways to ameliorate this saga is by involving the African Unions to wade in and condemn the ruthless killings of fellow Africans.

Xenophobic attacks in the US

Xenophobic attacks in the west have also risen, in the United States of America as killing of black men have been a regular report on the media. This has become so rampant that in many states in the US, black vigilante groups and others have taken up arms to protect their communities and even in some instances avenge the deaths of these black men.  The new government of Trump with its slogan “To make America great again” has been misconstrued by many white Americans to the extent that there is an increase in Islamophia and other racial discrimination.  Like in South Africa, foreigners and immigrants have been accused for the Income inequality and loss of jobs apart from acts of terrorism. This has led to increase in white supremacist groups in some states. The Trump administration, unfortunately, has not tackled the problem with the required attention it needs. Just recently Srinivas Kuchibhotla an Indian US citizen was murdered in cold blood and his colleague, Alok Madasani, wounded in Kansas. This is the sort of crime that has seen an increase since the election of the Trump administration. The murderer, Adam Purinton, initially taunted the two with racial slurs and then reportedly yelled “get out of my country” before pulling a gun on them.

A few days later a 43-year-old Indian-origin shop owner in the US was shot dead outside his home, just days after an Indian engineer was killed in Kansas in a hate crime shooting that had sent shockwaves across the country.

Xenophobic attacks in Germany 

In September 2016, bomb attacks hit a mosque and a convention centre in the eastern German city of Dresden, according to local police the motive appeared to be xenophobia and nationalism. No one was injured in the explosions a city that has become a hotspot for far-right protests and hate crimes following a major influx of migrants and refugees into Germany.

Dresden, a Baroque city in Germany’s ex-communist east, is also the birthplace of the anti-immigration PEGIDA street movement, short for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident. Its members have angrily protested against the influx of refugees and migrants that last year brought one million asylum seekers to Europe’s biggest economy.

Xenophobic attacks in UK 

In the United Kingdom, the EU referendum seems to have led to a rise in “anti-foreigner” sentiment in the country, a European human rights watchdog has claimed. Levels of hate speech and racist violence were highlighted in an assessment by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

According to the Commission there continues to be “considerable intolerant political discourse focusing on immigration and contributing to an increase in xenophobic sentiment”. The commission said a particularly high number of violent racist incidents occurred in 2013, with a sharp rise in anti-Muslim violence. “The Brexit referendum seems to have led to a further rise in ‘anti-foreigner’ sentiment, making it even more important that the British authorities take the steps outlined in our report as a matter of priority.”


The then British Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned a spate of apparent hate crimes against the large Polish community in Britain. Islamic groups also complain of a sharp rise in anti-Muslim incidents – many of them directly linked to the Brexit vote.

In Birmingham, anti-Muslim cartoon pamphlets were distributed, and a Muslim butcher was firebombed. On streets and public transport across the country, South Asians and other minorities are reportedly being told to — quote — “go home.”

Xenophobic attacks and Genocide in Rwanda  

The Rwandan Genocide was the 1994 mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutu political moderates by the Hutu dominated government. Over the course of approximately 100 days at least 800,000 people were killed.  The Rwandan Civil War, fought between the Hutu regime and the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) a rebel group, composed mostly of Tutsi refugees vastly increased the ethnic tensions in the country and led to the rise of Hutu Power, an ideology that asserted that the Tutsi intended to enslave Hutus and thus must be resisted at all costs. This senseless killing was triggered off by the assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana the then president in April 1994.

Xenophobic attacks and Genocide in Sudan   

The Darfur Conflict in Sudan began in February 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) recruited mostly from the non-Arab Muslim ethnic groups in Darfur took up arms, accusing the government of oppressing black Africans in favour of Arabs. The Sudanese government, while publicly denying that it supports the Janjaweed—a Sudanese militia group recruited mostly from the Afro-Arab tribes – is accused of providing financial assistance to the militia, and of participating in joint attacks targeting civilians. While the United States government has described the conflict as genocide, the UN has stopped short of defining the conflict as such. This atrocity was a classic case of genocide and xenophobic attack.

In March 2007 the UN mission accused Sudan’s government of taking part in “gross violations” in Darfur and on 14 July the following year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) filed ten charges of war crimes against Sudan’s President Omar Bashir. The ICC’s prosecutors claimed that al-Bashir “masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part” three tribal groups in Darfur because of their ethnicity. But Bashir has not been arrested and walks free.

The Consequences of Xenophobic attacks

According to social scientist, Xenophobia as a primordial instinct, arose with the appearance of living beings on Earth as a natural response to the threat posed by other species, and even members of the same species who belonged to external groups. The phenomena of racism, nationalism and patriotism exist among humans as a result of the kind of xenophobia that existed when primitive humans, gregarious by nature, could only survive and preserve their gene with members of their own tribe existing on the same habitat, considered the homeland. Exactly the same phenomenon can be observed in the animal kingdom only then we use different terms to describe it. This same behaviour can be clearly observed in a pack of wolves for example, who will fight other wolf packs as ferociously as other species of animal such as bear. Unlike xenophobia, neither racism, nationalism nor patriotism can be said to be biologically inherent in human beings. Take children’s pre-school groups for example. Children of different races will play together without it ever occurring to them that they are in some way different from their play-pals. All racial prejudices are adopted from by the child from their parents as they get older, who in turn adopted the prejudices from their own parents etc., going back to the era of race wars.

Aside from ethnic racism, other forms of discrimination exist in the world against religion, gender and class. Why do these forms of discrimination continue to exist in modern society? The adoption of desegregation laws in the USA more than half a century ago, represented a significant step forward in achieving the eradication of ethnic racism in America.

Whereas racism born of xenophobia is condemned throughout the world and nationalism disapproved of, patriotism is universally encouraged. Yet even this tendency is changing. In united Europe attempts are clearly being made to foster in children a feeling of pan-European patriotism in place of an ethnic, state-based patriotism. There is every reason to suppose that the consequences of xenophobia will be mitigated by examples of rapprochement between nations and increasing globalisation as all these developments are accompanied by an increase in global level of freedom of choice. And yet, it is still in very early days.

Measures to ending Xenophobic attacks

No country can survive in isolation of another, we all need each other to exist.  Presently, in Nigeria, the Niger Delta militants have threatened to disrupt and destroy business and assets belonging directly or indirectly to South African investors in Nigeria in retaliation to the killings of Nigerians in South African. These reprisal actions would not end xenophobic attacks and certainly not lasting solutions to issues like these.

All over the world many leaders of thought have risen to condemn acts of xenophobic attacks and reprisal attacks.

According to Tennessee Immigrants & Refuge Rights Coalition 2015, the following measures have been suggested as strategies for responding to anti refuge and xenophobic activities

  1. Don’t wait for , prepare for backlash

While Tennessee provides many lessons about how to respond to backlash in a way that builds stronger communities, local governments and communities need not wait for a specific legislative attack or tragic event to begin preparations. Many cities and counties are undergoing similar demographic change, and minor occurrences of xenophobic or Islamophobic sentiment can quickly devolve into a public campaign against immigrants, refugees, or Muslims, especially if outside organizations take notice and get involved. The best defence is to begin the proactive work of developing durable relationships between newcomers and local institutions, providing less fertile ground for those who seek to convert uncertainty and unfamiliarity into fear and hostility.

  1. Engage receiving Communities

One of the fundamental principles of this work is that you cannot combat fear-mongering—and the harmful policies misinformed by it—without first acknowledging the underlying fear itself. It is a reasonable instinct to respond to an influx of newcomers with fear and uncertainty, and most Tennesseans have very little context to interpret the demographic changes taking place around them. If communities don’t create enough public space to contextualize and normalize these fears, they are nothing but fodder for those who seek to exploit them for political or ideological gain. After years of uphill battles at the state legislature, TIRRC recognized that a long-term strategy to counter these recurring proposals required shifting the political climate and public understanding.

  • Shape the narrative

In addition to directly engaging receiving communities in conversations about demographic change, developing and investing in strategic communications has been critical to holding the line against anti- immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim policies. The media plays an important role in shaping how Tennesseans process the growth of the immigrant and refugee population—from sensationalist reporting on “Islamville,” to countless hours of talk-radio programs stoking fears and anxieties, to the stories highlighting the positive contributions of refugees or making the connection between anti-Muslim activists and anti-refugee policies. For example, in the summer of 2013 when the hearing was called

  1. Marginalize extreme voices.

Over the past decade, a handful of individuals and organizations have been behind more than 100 anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim bills in Tennessee. In an effort to build support for their extreme policies, they have frequently shifted the focus and rationale for their proposals to capitalize on whatever is most politically expedient at the moment. They may target undocumented immigrants, Muslims, or refugees, or focus on law and order, economic scarcity, or national security. But they always play off of the fear and anxiety in receiving communities, and pitch variations of anti-immigrant policies as the solution to all of the state’s problems. A critical defensive strategy in Tennessee has been to create a wedge between moderate and extreme forces in the state by exposing the underlying intentions of the legislation and marginalizing its proponents.

Coming back to our antecedent, Nigeria must be made a land of opportunities for all and sundry including legal foreigners and migrants to live and thrive. We must do away with ethnicity, religious bigotry and sectional domination given Nigerians genuine freedom to live in any part of the country of their choice.  The degree of mutual hatred Nigerians harbour against one another must be addressed all in authority.



The xenophobia of today is tomorrow’s genocide. Like in the cases of Rwanda, Sudan and many others, these negatives take the form of inter alia – racial bigotry, cultural divisions, gender discrimination, religious intolerance, ethnic strife, nationalistic hatred and xenophobia.”

It is worthy to note that the xenophobia-driven violence against other citizens including Nigerians, Zimbabweans and others in South Africa, the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in the Sudan and the mass ethnic killing of Black Africans in Darfur by the Janjawid are unequivocally conflicts and wars fought on racial and xenophobic lines.

The world should not allow this type of history to repeat itself ,  as was the case with Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur, while diplomats debated, the perpetrators raped, pillaged and murdered. In Rwanda, avoidance of use of the term ‘genocide’ at the outset of the killing by official United Nations agencies was the diplomatic excuse for inaction that allowed the genocide of 800 000 people to occur over a period of 3 months in 1994.  In Darfur, Sudan, in September 2004 there were 1.6 million crisis-affected people and an estimated 70 000 deaths by late 2004, that, as a result of the inaction noted earlier, has probably exceeded 400 000 deaths.

Recorded examples of Xenophobia in History

The following are a list of examples of many xenophobic actions recorded in history:

  1. The Jewish Holocaust
  2. The murder of black families by the Ku Klux Klan
  3. The Indian caste system which actively has hurts those in lower castes
  4. Exhibits of humans from Africa, the Philippines, and tribal pygmies were put on display in the 19th century in human zoos
  5. During World War II, Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians were segregated from the population and lost basic rights and liberties.
  6. The Rwandan attempted “ethnic cleansing” which resulted in the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and the rape of Tutsi women.
  7. Hate crimes against Indians in Australia in 2009
  8. The war in what was Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995 involved fighting between several ethnic groups that resulted in a massive amount of deaths. The groups involved were the Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks and Slovenes.
  9. The treatment of the Native Americans by colonists is considered the result of xenophobia.
  10. The hate crimes committed against the Chinese in the late 1800’s in the U.S.
  11. During and after World War I there was some anti-German sentiment that can be contributed to xenophobia.

From the aforementioned, the consequences of xenophobia can be very serious. It is important to do everything possible to overcome xenophobia on a societal and widespread level in order to avoid problems that can stem from fear and prejudice.


Florence Chinyere Imo

Member, United Nations Association of Nigeria