Xenophobic Racism?

By Sara Milena Ferrer Valencia*

 

Recently, violence against immigrants has burst in different parts of the globe. This phenomenon, which most have interpreted as a manifestation of xenophobia, seems to be fueled by other ingredients. Various cases arguably reflect anti-Black racism rooted in the foundational myths of their respective nations and in their deepest national sentiments. My commentary will begin by reviewing two cases that confirm racism is a slippery monster.

In mid-April of this year in South Africa at least seven people were killed and another five thousand were forced from their homes due to a local riot against the migrant population. This event adds on to rising violence covered internationally since 2008, when in the city of Alexandra and its outskirts at least 62 people were killed due to similar motives.

Zimbabwean children at a refugee camp in Northern South Africa. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via UK Department for International Development.

Zimbabwean children at a refugee camp in Northern South Africa. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via UK Department for International Development.

There are no official data that specify the racial identity of victims and perpetrators, but the majority of reports indicate that the latter are black South Africans. Moreover, many of the victims are refugees or asylum seekers. This population, according to UNHCR reports, mainly comes from countries like Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia. According to the University of Witwatersrand’s Forced Migration Studies Programme, in June 2010 of the 2 million foreigners in South Africa, between 1 and 1.5 million were from Zimbabwe.

Due simply to geography, it is “natural” that the majority of the victims be Black people from African countries; however, it is interesting to dig into some statements made by Black South African nationals who raise concerns regarding the migrant population like: “they are used by Whites who prefer to exploit them than employ us,” or even comments as specific as: “they are darker than us.” Likewise, according to a coauthored study by the Southern African Migration Project and the South African Human Rights Commission, Black foreigners of African origin are negatively perceived by a large part of the South African population who, for several decades, refer to them as Makwerekwere, a pejorative term for a Black, foreign person that does not speak English well and is considered uncivilized. This expression, according to some sources, originated in the nineties, when the South African government began promoting immigration from neighboring countries to contract them in mining and the like. White immigrants, in contrast, are referred to and treated as “tourists.” Thus it seems that Black people mix racial hatred in displays against Black migrants.

A young man in the Dominican Republic with a sign that reads “If I’m not from here, then where am I from?” Source: Impacto Latin News.

A young man in the Dominican Republic with a sign that reads “If I’m not from here, then where am I from?” Source: Impacto Latin News.

Despite its geographic distance, a similar situation unfolds in the Caribbean. In the Dominican Republic the situation became “suspicious” when the government began a strong wave of arbritary expulsions of both residents from Haiti and Dominicans of Haitian descent. Many of these deportations, which took place in a period of less than a decade, were studied by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights through an August 2014 sentence. The Court found that during said period there was a systematic pattern of discrimination in the deportations, as people were apprehended, transported, and abandoned at the Haitian border without an individualized analysis of the cases.

Moreover, in recent days the government put into effect the National Plan for Foreigners in Irregular Migratory Status, based on the Law 169-14, that has a few very controversial elements. On one hand, it states that children of foreigners born in the Dominican Republic could opt for ordinary naturalization “once two years pass after attaining one of the migratory categories established by law.” On the other hand, it excludes this benefit for those who registered with false information, “provided that the facts are directly traceable to the beneficiary.” In effect, the law does not foresee an additional recourse to the process assigned to the Central Electoral Body, which has obliged the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic to resolve cases in which both parties disagree on the documents’ truthfullness.

In sum, in the pretext of very understandable socio-economic worries, not necessarily linked to the country’s economic growth, in this place in the Caribbean the government seems to also mediate racially suspicious motives in the design and implementation of immigration policy, especially concentrated on the Haitian population, which represents 87% of the migrant population in the country. A context that has as precedent the cruel killing of 9,000 to 20,000 Haitians by order of President Trujillo less than eighty years ago.

Usually, in response to the question if xenophobic racism is possible, skeptics reply that the migrant population imposes many costs or that there is no such thing as Black-on-Black racism. In fact, both in South Africa and the Dominican Republic – and more recently in the Bahamas— the problem has been discussed solely as a matter of immigration policy. However, racism does not escape any of these considerations. On the contrary, being countries marked by the incisive discourse of racial hatred, it is important that the problem be studied beyond the label of xenophobia so that the answers to these phenomena can resolve all the underlying factors to this current issue.

 

*Sara Milena Ferrer Valencia is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).