Combating Xenophobia: Human Rights First Event

David M. Robinson
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Washington, DC
February 29, 2012

Date: 02/29/2012 Description: Acting Assistant Secretary David M. Robinson  - State Dept Image

Good morning and thank you all very much for being here on this otherwise miserable day, and for inviting me to participate in this event. I’d like to start by congratulating Human Rights First for organizing this forum and for compiling the report that will inform our discussion throughout the rest of the morning. In addition to the hard work, inspired work, that went into compiling the report, I want to commend the analysis and recommendations that it offers. They seem to me to be very sound and to provide a solid foundation for action. So thank you, and thank you, Elisa, and all your colleagues.

Having said my thank yous, I also have a confession to make. As I read through the report, I found myself becoming increasingly disturbed. Not just by the subject matter itself, which is, of course, disturbing and should disturb all of us. But rather, I became disturbed by the tone and the vocabulary of the report. The language and the style is admirably measured as all good reports should be. It's very calm and objective. And that's what began to bother me.

Think about the word Xenophobia. It’s a big word. It’s got ten letters and is dripping with Latin. Because of that, it sounds almost clinical, almost sanitized. Phobia. It’s like a condition or a disease that can be treated once it’s properly diagnosed and understood. It conjures images of psychiatrists or other physicians: rational, neutral clinicians who specialize in…Xenophobia.

But that’s not the case, is it? It isn’t measured. Xenophobia basically means hatred. It means hatred for what’s foreign to you. It means hatred for what’s strange or alien or different from you. It means hatred that’s so powerfully felt that it sometimes turns to violence. And you don’t treat hatred. You stomp on it. You combat it, as the Human Rights First report correctly notes in its title. Hatred doesn’t require physicians; it can't be treated by a doctor or some other neutral clinician. Hatred needs opponents. It needs an exorcist, not a psychiatrist.

And so the report disturbed me. The subject matter and emotion were so discordant. Which is another way of saying the report did its job. While the tone and language don't convey, the anger we justifiably feel about the gross injustice inflicted by xenophobic and other bias-based violence, the report, together with this forum, is a strong call to action. Together, they remind us that it's in fact our duty to combat, to exorcise, the pernicious kind of hatred that picks on the world’s most vulnerable people, the kind of hatred that goes after refugees, IDPs, stateless people, gay and lesbian people, religious and ethnic minorities and anybody else who is different, who is alien. The kind of hatred that goes after…well, it goes after people. Not statistics. Not populations. Not representatives of special groups. It goes after people. Individuals with identities, with hopes and dreams and heartbreak and families. Just people.

Since xenophobia goes after people, xenophobia is personal. It may be rooted in historical experience. It may be enshrined in local custom. It may be codified in national law. But xenophobia--hatred-- is always personal. It seeks out and attacks the people who most need compassion. It isolates and oppresses the people who most need justice. And it exposes and crushes the people who most need protection. And that, folks, is intensely personal.

And so combating xenophobia is also personal. Combating xenophobia means taking sides, not simply, as we in the State Department often do, adopting positions. It means abandoning the pretense of uncomfortable acceptance or grudging tolerance or reluctant understanding of abysmal behavior and taking the side of those who most need compassion, the side of those who most need justice, and the side of those who most need protection. And perhaps most importantly, combating xenophobia means taking that word, that measured, clinical, slightly abstract term, and making it in-your-face personal.

As we survey the globe, all of us are familiar with egregious examples of xenophobia and other forms of destructive bias, whether sanctioned or merely tolerated by governments, as the report notes, too: Ethnic Haitians in the Dominican Republic, the Bidoon in Kuwait, or the Rohingya in Burma. These are essentially stateless people, who are denied the protections we take for granted, and then, when driven from their homes, their suffering the additional hardship of becoming refugees or IDPs. We're familiar with sub-Saharan migrants who are brutalized crossing the Sinai, and with economic migrants, stranded and preyed upon in Yemen. And we know about lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender and other people ostracized and sometimes killed in far too many places around the world. The list of victims of hatred and violence is long and it's messy. We all know this.

Knowing all this begs the question. The question, of course, is how do we stop it. Well, I am lucky, in fact, I am privileged, to work for a government that gets it, I work for a government that puts its money where its values are. My bureau, PRM, was built specifically to take the right side, to use diplomacy, programming and advocacy to protect the world's most vulnerable people and to oppose the systematic oppression that they face. And we aggressively pursue this mandate at the local, national and international levels, you all know well, including with health, nutrition, legal, sanitation, shelter, education, livelihood and resettlement interventions and services. And we routinely ping and guide and consult with other governments whether to encourage them to improve their own protection regimes or to dismantle discriminatory practices and policies. And we take a look at oursevles, too, to constantly improve, we look in the mirror. The catalogue of our activism is significant and growing.

But the most important thing we do, the best strategy we employ to combat xenophobia, is to help build and sustain multilayered partnerships, partnerships that turn our policy positions and our program objectives into flesh and blood outcomes. PRM – you all know the statistics – is the single most generous, and I hope most reliable, partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, of the International Organization for Migration, and of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestine. These relationships go far beyond writing checks and drafting reports. They are all long-lived relationships that go beyond the reports. They are true partnerships, with all of the dynamism, creativity, and, yes, the tension that lifelong partners generate, and they, along with our NGO partners, are at the heart of a global humanitarian architecture that has one purpose and just one purpose: To protect vulnerable people. Individuals.

Xenophobia is about people. Xenophobic and other forms of bias-based violence are always personal. And so the success or failure of our efforts to stop it cannot be judged primarily in measured, clinical terms: By the treaties we sign, by the laws we cause to be passed, by the dollars we spend. Those may be, those are, important and contributing factors to success. But the real success of our strategies to combat xenophobia has got to be measured by how well we reach specific people, individual human beings. We have to judge ourselves by how well we stand beside those people who need us most. More than anything else that requires vast networks of committed, capable partners and partnerships.

I wish you great luck in your discussions today, I’m sorry I won’t be able to stay, and I hope that you'll approach them from the point of view of the victims or potential victims themselves rather than the organizational imperatives we represent. And if we do that, our strategies will stand on the right side of the equation.

Thank you.