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Refugees Magazine Issue 142 ("Victims of Intolerance") - Editorial: Abusers or Abused? (By António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees)

Refugees Magazine Issue 142 ("Victims of Intolerance") - Editorial: Abusers or Abused? (By António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees)

1 April 2006

It is chilling to read that a European politician, albeit one from a minor party, was recently in court for - among other grotesque statements - describing asylum seekers as "cockroaches." This was the term used by the infamous Rwandan radio station, Radio Mille Collines, to describe the Tutsis in the run-up to the genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in 1994 - an event that will forever cast into doubt the old reassuring saying that "sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me."

Radio Mille Collines and other forms of hate-media laid the groundwork for the genocide in Rwanda, and sticks, stones and machetes did the rest.

Even if it is human nature to be suspicious of "the other," intolerance of other races, religions, ethnic groups and political systems should not be tolerated beyond a certain point. There is an essential paradox here, which lies at the heart of all secular, democratic legal systems. There are lines that cannot be crossed if frictions, violence and ultimately a breakdown in social order are to be avoided.

Refugees are victims of intolerance virtually by definition: it is usually some sort of political, social, religious or ethnic intolerance that forces them to leave their own country for fear of persecution. Unfortunately, they are increasingly victims of intolerance in asylum countries as well - in both the North and the South.

In recent years, a number of asylum seekers and refugees have been murdered in some of the richest, most developed industrialized societies. And for each one who is murdered, hundreds are beaten up and thousands are verbally abused. Some of the murders and most savage assaults create a stir. Some are barely noticed. The rest of the physical and verbal abuse tends not to register on the general public. Sometimes intolerance manifests itself as simple indifference to the plight of others.

In an increasing number of countries, asylum seekers - and the refugees among them - have become a tool for political demagogues, or have been turned into faceless bogymen by an unscrupulous popular press.

Asylum seekers are easy to demonize. They are all foreigners, so an attractive target for those who are suspicious of, or actively dislike, foreigners or minorities with "foreign" origins. Asylum seekers are not a "race," nor do they belong to a single religion. As a result, they are not protected under most race-relations laws (in those countries where such laws exist). This makes them easy prey for politicians and journalists who wish to pursue a wider anti-foreigner agenda.

There are two main underlying perceptions that have corroded public and governmental support for refugees: the belief that they abuse the hospitality of their hosts, and the belief that there are too many of them - with more on the way.

The systems designed to sort out who among the asylum seekers are refugees, and who are not, are often tortuous: overcomplicated, under-staffed and slow. If would-be immigrants are indeed abusing the international asylum system, they should be discouraged from doing so and sent home. This is not always easy. But in essence it is a management issue, not an ideological one.

But it is easier to blame the asylum seekers for subverting the system, than it is to admit the management of the system has been at fault.

Abuse of the asylum system is a hot topic among industrialized nations, especially in the European Union. But abuse of asylum seekers is not. The EU, the Council of Europe and the UN have between them assembled an impressive array of bodies devoted to researching and making recommendations about how to deal with the wider issues of racism and xenophobia. But these discussions have to date been drowned out by other political debates - border controls against terrorism, the failure to manage integration in some multicultural societies, freedom of speech versus respect of religions, and apocalyptic talk about a clash of civilizations.

Numbers are the other main driving force. Countries with huge refugee populations that stay for decades - like Iran, Pakistan and Tanzania - can, quite understandably, grow tired. The hostile debate in Germany in the early 1990s took place at a time when Germany received a million asylum seekers in just three years, mostly from the Balkans. But in some other countries, where the numbers are far less spectacular - both in real terms and per capita - the debate has been equally, if not more, vitriolic. Yet the numbers, both of refugees and of asylum seekers, are in many countries at their lowest for decades.

Most industrialized countries now have the time and the space to take a more rational approach to the management of asylum, and to make a concerted effort to dispel some of the hysteria surrounding the issue.

A similar opportunity to reassess the approach to asylum on the one hand, and economic migration on the other, has arisen for some developing countries like Iran and Pakistan, from where more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees have gone home over the past four years.

In international and national law, clean distinctions are made between refugees, asylum seekers, legal and illegal economic migrants, minority citizens, travellers and others. These are vital distinctions but, once the moral bonds are loosened, these distinctions do not mean much down among the thugs on the street. A foreigner - especially a foreigner with a different skin colour - is the prey, the enemy, the cockroach that needs to be crushed.

In some countries, deliberate attempts to dehumanize asylum seekers are continuing: always presenting them as menacing statistics, as criminals and bringers of disease, or as some other form of generalized abstract aberration that is easy to hate. History tells us that fomenting hatred of "foreigners" is a dangerous path for any society to follow. At the far end of that path lie the horrors that create refugees in the first place. As they discovered in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the far end is sometimes closer than we think.

Our efforts to combat the intolerant attitudes that threaten asylum - and I recognize that there are many such efforts underway, especially at grassroots local levels - have been too hesitant and fragmented. I believe it is time for all concerned to make a joint stand against irrational suspicions and the clamour for exclusion, and that this is a matter of great urgency - for refugees, but also for states and peoples who believe in the importance of law and order.

Tolerance is not the mark of any specific civilization, but of civilization itself. Rather than bow to populist opinion, we must hold fast to universal values and principles - including protecting those in need.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 142: "Abusers or Abused?" (April 2006).