The global financial crisis has led to an upswing in xenophobia around the world, further complicating the lives of migrants in host countries.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism Githu Muigai told the Sunday Nation the economic recession had hardened attitudes towards race, especially in the developed world.
“When people are threatened, they become more insular and more xenophobic. They begin to argue that their jobs are being taken away by others, and governments have a responsibility to educate their citizens and help to curb attacks on migrants,” he said.
Professor Muigai is the first Kenyan to hold the position of special rapporteur on racism. The post was created by the UN Human Rights Council in 1993 with the mandate to examine incidents of contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
Speaking in the run-up to Human Rights Day on December 10, Prof Muigai said he was concerned about the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, a phenomenon that has been blamed in part on the financial crisis.
“The mainstreaming of political parties whose agenda is overtly racist can erode all the years of progress in combating racism and is a problem that should concern us all,” he said.
Parties on the far right have made significant electoral gains in a number of Western European countries, including the United Kingdom, where a large number of Kenyan students and workers live.
The British National Party, an extremist group that seeks to restore the UK’s predominantly white population through “firm but voluntary incentives for immigrants and their descendants to return home” recently won two seats in the European Parliament.
Switzerland and Austria are two other countries where right-wing parties have enjoyed electoral success in recent months.
Prof Muigai said such gains could make life harder for economic migrants, who already find it difficult to survive in host countries.
According to the UN Development Programme’s 2009 Human Development Report, nearly one billion, or one of seven of the world’s people are migrants.
South Africa, where the main observance of this year’s Human Rights Day was held, has itself been struggling with an influx of thousands of Zimbabweans crossing the border every month in search of work and security, according to UN television station Unifeed.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) last month condemned xenophobic attacks targeting some 3,000 Zimbabweans and other foreigners in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. A wave of similar country-wide violence in May 2008 resulted in the deaths of some 60 people and left tens of thousands of foreigners homeless.
Despite these challenges, Prof Muigai said South Africa is still a good model, praising the fact the multiracial society envisaged in the country’s new post-apartheid constitution was still in place.
But he also acknowledged “very serious challenges” and said the football World Cup next year in South Africa should serve as a forum to call attention to the problems of racism and xenophobia.
On Kenya, Prof Muigai urged political leaders to manage ethnicity as part of the political process so that disputes are not resolved through armed conflict.
He also called for implementation of reforms, including some of those recommended by Professor Philip Alston, who is the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights.