Xenophobia

Originally the word xenophobia comes from the Greek words xénos, meaning 'the stranger' and 'the guest' and phóbos, meaning 'fear'. Thus, xenophobia stands for 'fear of the stranger', but usually the term is taken to mean 'hatred of strangers'1. Xenophobia can be understood as "an attitudinal orientation of hostility against non-natives in a given population".2

In contrast to sociobiologists who consider xenophobia to be a universal phenomenon, social scientists describe it as one among several possible forms of reactions generated by anomic situations in the societies of modern states. Furthermore, it is growing out of the existence of essentialist symbolic and normative systems that legitimate processes of integration or exclusion. Thus, xenophobic behaviour is based on existing racist, ethnic, religious, cultural, or national prejudice. Xenophobia can be defined as the "attitudes, prejudices and behaviour that reject, exclude and often vilify persons, based on the perception that they are outsiders or foreigners to the community, society or national identity." 3

Xenophobia and racism often overlap, but are distinct phenomena. Whereas racism usually entails distinction based on physical characteristic differences, such as skin colour, hair type, facial features, etc, xenophobia implies behaviour based on the idea that the other is foreign to or originates from outside the community or nation.4

Because differences in physical characteristics are often taken to distinguish the 'other' from the common community, it is often difficult to differentiate between racism and xenophobia as motivations for behaviour. At the same time, expression of xenophobia may occur against people of identical physical characteristics when such people arrive, return or migrate to States or areas where occupants consider them outsiders.5

In the 90s, xenophobic outbursts were followed by an increase in acts of racist violence in several societies in the world. This rise of xenophobia can be distinguished from the old form of racism leading to Nazism and Fascism in terms of its ideological roots and causes. Accordingly, it is possible to talk about a 'new racism' that developed in the post-war era since racism no longer was based on biological but rather on cultural differences.

Two causes are put forward to explain the resurgence of xenophobic and racist movements towards the end of the twentieth century. The first cause is new migration patterns that have developed as an effect of the gradual internationalisation of the labour market during the postcolonial era. In the receiving countries, social groups in disfavourable position considered newcomers as competitors for jobs and public services. This cultivated a social and political climate that generated xenophobia and racism (i.e. defensive reactions against migrants), as well as nationalism (i.e. demands that the state provide better protection against foreigners for its own population).

The second cause believed to reinforce xenophobia and racism is globalisation. Increased competition between states has led states to reduce their services in areas of social welfare, education and healthcare. This reduction influenced in particular the segments of the population living on the margins of society. These groups are often in direct competition with migrants for welfare service and are the main breeding ground for xenophobic and racist ideologies. Research has shown that severe economic inequalities and the marginalization of persons from access to basic economic and social conditions give rise to tensions and manifestations of racism and xenophobia 6. Those perceived to be outsiders or foreigners, often migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, displaced persons, and non-nationals, are main targets.

At the same time, xenophobic or racist reactions are not necessarily aggravated by the presence of a large number of immigrants. There are examples showing that social decline of specific groups and right-wing political organisations are sufficient preconditions for the emergence of xenophobia.7


1 Smelser, N. J. and Baltes, P. B. (eds.) 2001. International Encyclopaedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences. Elsevier. Oxford Science Ltd.

2 Boehnke, Klaude in NGO Working Group on Migration and Xenophobia for the World Conference (in International Migration, Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia, 2001. A publication jointly produced by ILO, IOM, OHCHR, in consultation with UNHCR. Page 2.

3 Declaration on Racism, discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance against Migrants and Trafficked Persons. Asia-Pacific NGO Meeting for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Teheran, Iran. 18 February 2001.

4 NGO Working Group on Migration and Xenophobia for the World Conference (in International Migration, Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia, 2001. A publication jointly produced by ILO, IOM, OHCHR, in consultation with UNHCR.

5 Declaration on Racism, discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance against Migrants and Trafficked Persons. Asia-Pacific NGO Meeting for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Teheran, Iran. 18 February 2001.

6 NGO Working Group on Migration and Xenophobia for the World Conference (in International Migration, Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia, 2001. A publication jointly produced by ILO, IOM, OHCHR, in consultation with UNHCR.

7 Ibid.

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