In June 2023, 750 refugees, including 400 Pakistanis, were atop a packed boat on its way to Greece, in search of a better life and job opportunities to sustain livelihood. The boat capsized, killing over 600 of them. They were among the thousands of people fleeing an economic, political and humanitarian crisis in their home countries that has left many of them without hope. Even if they tried to swim to the top of the deep sea, the big, powerful countries that the boats set off to, would have shown them their closed doors.
“Stop the boats” – is figuratively and literally what the United Kingdom government has proposed as an answer to the growing refugee crisis in the country. As per the proposed bill, people who have entered the UK illegally have to be deported, along with stripping them of any legal protection that they would have otherwise received.
Such restrictive immigration policies are usually implemented within a climate of existing xenophobia and racism targeted towards refugees and asylum seekers. They are blamed for rising crime and unemployment in host countries, often without any form of evidence. The unending cycle of being forced to flee home countries and facing racism in host countries leaves many with no place to be.
Racism – Root Cause Of Forced Displacement
Thousands of people have been forced to flee their home countries as a result of ethnic violence, racism, racial discrimination, and ethnic intolerance. In such cases, these people flee across borders as refugees, in others they are internally displaced within their own countries.
The Rohingya people, for instance, have historically faced violence and discrimination in Myanmar, forcing them to flee to countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Nepal. Even though they can trace their origins back to what's now Myanmar, the state has refused to provide citizenship status to the Muslim minority, claiming that they are "Bengali" immigrants from across the border.
The first widely reported atrocities against Rohingyas in Myanmar was in 2012 when officials, community leaders, and Buddhist monks organised and encouraged ethnic Arakanese backed by state security forces to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods and villages to terrorise and forcibly relocate the population, according to a report by Humans Right Watch. Following the 2012 violence, government authorities destroyed mosques, conducted violent mass arrests, and blocked aid to displaced Muslims, Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted.
Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, in 1956, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike implemented the Sinhala Only Act, making Sinhalese the official language of the island and forcing Tamils out of key employment sectors. Although 2009 marked the end of the civil war, the island’s minority Tamils continue to be discriminated against. As an HRW report from 2022 notes, the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pursued policies that are hostile to the Tamil and Muslim communities, while also using the security forces to intimidate and suppress human rights activists and the families of victims of enforced disappearance.
When these vulnerable populations flee across borders as refugees, they are again met with discrimination and ethnic intolerance in the form of border closures, detention and other punitive measures upon arrival, and hostility from political leaders and media personnel.
Racism In Host Countries
From building razor wire barriers and four-kilometre-long fences to deploying armed forces, countries across the world are increasingly restricting the major routes used by hundreds of thousands of refugees. While in 2022, countries processed asylum requests faster than in previous years, the UNHCR said that backlogs keep growing due to “the sheer volume of new applications”.
This has been a practice since time immemorial. For example, when the Kosovo refugee crisis began in April 1999, Macedonia shut its borders to Kosovar Albanian refugees, arguing that they could critically 'destabilise the fragile ethnic balance in the country'.
Along with such policies, statements made by political leaders and media channels have often portrayed asylum seekers as criminals because of the "illegal" way in which they are forced to enter Western countries.
Amid an influx of refugees in Europe in 2015 following the war in Syria, the President of the European Council suggested refugees and asylum seekers be detained for up to 18 months to screen them for terrorism risks.
Similarly in Tunisia, President Saied early this year said that “hordes of irregular migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa had come to Tunisia with all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails”. He said this was an “unnatural” situation and part of a criminal plan designed to “change the demographic make-up” and turn Tunisia into “just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations any more”.
According to a report by Amnesty International, after the aforementioned president’s speech, Tunisian men, sometimes armed with batons and knives, had taken to the streets and attacked Black African migrants across Tunisia or raided their houses.
While everyone agrees that the world is facing an extreme refugee crisis, human rights organisations across the world have called on countries to decolonise global policies on refugees and ensure that all refugees and asylum seekers are equally heard and prioritised.