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Race and Migration: Ten Years After Durban

Demonstrators march with a banner reading Ratify U.N. Migrant Rights Convention.
Durban, South Africa. 2001

By Carol Barton

Over 15,000 people gathered in Durban, South Africa, 10 years ago to attend the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, known as WCAR, or “Durban.” Governments issued a “Durban Declaration” identifying areas of concern and making commitments to take action to challenge racism. At the same time, thousands of activists went to Durban to lift up their concerns, from Afro-decendents to Roma, Indian Dalits and Indigenous peoples, Palestinians and women from all regions. United Methodist Women sent a delegation to Durban and has continued to monitor United Nations (U.N.) reviews of the conference. On September 22, 2011, at U.N. headquarters in New York City the U.N. General Assembly held a review of implementation of the Durban Declaration, attended by Women’s Division staff Esmeralda Brown and elmira Nazombe. Parallel to those governmental debates, United Methodist Women hosted a series of panels and workshops at the Church Center for the United Nations to continue to lift up key racial justice concerns. One of those is the nexus of race and migration. The following is a report on a workshop organized by United Methodist Women and United Methodist Women partner the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

WCAR was an exciting development for the global migrant rights movement. A nongovernmental (NGO) Migrant and Refugee Caucus involved more than 70 organizations from around the world, including 25 U.S. organizations. “That caucus was extremely successful in advocating with governments to include language about migrant human rights in the Durban Declaration,” according to Carol Barton, United Methodist Women executive for community action. Some 45 paragraphs of the government document include important language about migrant rights. This document can be used nationally as a tool to hold governments accountable for commitments around racial equality, including in the area of migration policy. Yet the Durban conference was followed only three days later by the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Quickly, U.S. and global migration policy shifted from a human rights framework to that of national security. Too often “terrorist” and “migrants” were linked. Racial discrimination against migrants increased rather than decreased after the World Conference, and migrants have increasingly been criminalized. Migration enforcement and societal attitudes are often linked to race, ethnicity, national origin and religion through profiling.

Key Points From the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action

16. We recognize that xenophobia against migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers constitutes one of the main sources of contemporary racism and human rights violations.

30. We affirm the urgent need to prevent, combat and eliminate all forms of trafficking in persons, in particular women and children.

38. Calls on all states to review and where necessary revise immigration policies inconsistent with international human rights instruments.

47. We reaffirm the sovereign right of each state to formulate and apply its own legal framework and policies for migration and further affirm that these policies should be consistent with applicable human rights instruments, norms and standards, and designed to ensure that they are free of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

48. We note with concern and strongly condemn the manifestations and acts of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against migrants and the stereotypes often applied to them; reaffirm the responsibility of States to protect the human rights of migrants under their jurisdiction and reaffirm the responsibility of States to safeguard and protect migrants against illegal or violent acts, in particular acts of racial discrimination and crimes perpetrated with racist or xenophobic motivation by individuals or groups and stress the need for their fair, just and equitable treatment in society and in the workplace.

51. We reaffirm the necessity of eliminating racial discrimination against migrants, including migrant workers, in relation to issues such as employment, social services, including education and health, as well as access to justice, and that their treatment must be in accordance with international human rights instruments, free from racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

“Historically, racism is integral to Western immigration policies, which have created a transnational racialized immigration hierarchy,” according to Corann Okorodudu of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and the NGO Committee on Migration. In an historical overview of this history, Ms. Okorodudu spoke of race as a factor in migration from the transatlantic slave trade to modern day trafficking of persons. Today, wealthy countries are buying whole blocks of land in Africa as they seek food security, which is displacing people from the land and forcing migration. “The system of racism in the West is pernicious and global, often cloaked in language of humanitarianism,” Ms. Okorodudu said. In a historical overview of migration policies in the United States she noted legal language that assumed Blacks to be inferior or unable to assimilate. Migration quotas in the 1920s privileged white Northern Europeans and reflected fears of an increase of Black and Brown people in the overall population. The goal of a 1920 law was explicitly to preserve the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States. Today, fears around immigration in the United States often reflect concern about the “browning of America.” Great Britain and Canada followed similar restrictive policies.

Ms. Okorodudu attributed U.S. policy changes to the strength of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, led by African Americans, along with independence movements in Africa. New U.S. policy passed in the same era as the Civil Rights Act abolished racial migration quotas. As a result, the racial profile of the United States began to change. More afro-decendents were able to migrate from the Caribbean and Africa. Ms. Okorodudu traced racial bias in U.S. extension of permanent residencies as well. She addressed the current reality of detention, which includes refugee and asylum-seekers in the United States and even children. Many Africans seeking asylum in the United States are detained until their case can be considered and are deported back to dangerous situations if their asylum status is not granted. Latinos are routinely swept into detention for minor infractions such as a broken headlight. “Detention is the cornerstone of the U.S. immigration policy right now. Detention centers are expanding. Far too little is known about this reality by the general public,” she said.

Gerald Lenoir, director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, addressed the current nexus of race and migration. “Migration is one of the cutting edge issues in the struggle against racism in the United States today. Immigrant rights is an expression of the historical struggle against racism in this nation,” he said. He also noted widespread fears, whipped up by some newscasters, of the “browning of America.” One television personality spoke with concern of the “pollution of the Anglo-Saxon culture.” Dangerously, this has become part of mainstream rhetoric on television. Mr. Lenoir noted the consolidation of white supremacist forces in immigration debates within the United States. According to United Methodist Women partner the Center for New Community, many leading anti-immigrant organizations such as FAIR, the Center for Immigration Studies, and Numbers USA have ties to the white supremacist John Tanton network. FAIR has been behind many of the anti-immigrant laws and bills before state legislators and dominates the House Immigration Reform Caucus. “Post–September 11, 2001, discourse conveyed the idea that the security of the United States was threatened by immigrants coming across our borders,” noted Mr. Lenoir.

Anti-immigrant efforts are being linked with other efforts to roll back racial justice gains of the Civil Rights movement according to Mr. Lenoir. Arizona passed a strong anti-immigrant law in 2010. At the same time, it passed a law banning ethnic studies in public schools and has promoted an anti–affirmative action measure. “The anti-immigrant movement has provided fodder for white supremacist groups that have been waiting in the wings to revive their racist ideology,” noted Mr. Lenoir. This is why anti-immigrant organizing threatens all communities of color and gains made since the 1960s, not just new immigrants. It is a threat to African Americans and Latino citizens as well.

Mr. Lenoir spoke of the importance of understanding how economic globalization has forced millions around the globe to migrate. Trade policies such as NAFTA have driven small farmers from their land when they could not compete with cheaper imports. Many ultimately migrated in an effort to find work. This has also occurred in Africa. The United States is seeking new trade deals with Columbia, Panama and Korea. “These policies distort economies and force flows of migration,” Mr. Lenoir said. “With victories for U.S. Blacks from the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, Black workers were finally able break racial boundaries to gain good jobs with benefits in industries such as auto, steel and rubber. Yet soon after that the factories moved elsewhere, throwing African Americans out of work,” he observed. “We know this story. Now, something similar is happening to people in economies of the Global South who are being thrown out of work. We share a common interest with them because we’ve both been displaced by globalization.” Mr. Lenoir’s organization, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, has as its goal building alliances between African Americans and immigrants who share these common experiences of racism and displacement. “This alliance to challenge an ascendant ‘nativist’ and white supremacist agenda is part of the historical struggle against racism,” he concluded.

During discussion, some noted that this reality is echoed in the European Union (EU) today. As the EU faces economic instability, many are focusing their anger and fears at migrants in a rising tide of xenophobia. Mr. Lenoir noted that in the United States there has been an effort in the media and by some officials to blame current economic ills on communities of color. One line of discourse is that “Blacks, Latinos, immigrants took out mortgages they could not afford” and thus are responsible for the mortgage industry collapse. This shifts focus from the lenders who pushed risky loans for profit with little accountability, jeopardizing the whole financial system. The sad thing is that this kind of argument has gained credibility in the United States, partly because it plays to deep-seated racism.

There was also discussion about how new immigrants to the United States sometimes buy into the racial hierarchy in the United States that places African Americans at the bottom and whites at the top. Some immigrants bring their own racial prejudices or seek to distance themselves from U.S. Blacks in an effort to open more opportunities for themselves. “Immigrants do not all experience the same United States of America,” commented Ms. Okorodudu. “Their culture, race, class, gender and religion determine how they are treated once they get here. Media, schools, church, neighborhoods teach them where they fit into the racial pecking order when they arrive.” There is much work to be done to enable new immigrants and African Americans to know one another’s history and to build common ground based on common interests.

Beyond these efforts, participants agreed on the importance of better publicizing government’s commitments to migrant human rights found in the Durban Declaration as well as other U.N. documents. An important opportunity is December 18, International Migrants Day, which has become a time to urge nations to ratify the U.N. Convention on Migrant Rights. The United States has not ratified this convention. United Methodist Women and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights will be organizing activities on that day to call on governments to honor their international commitments regarding the rights of migrants, including freedom from racism and xenophobia.

Cosponsors of the forum included the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, DRUM: Desis Rising Up and Moving, Latin American and Caribbean Community Center, Migrant Rights International (MRI), and the NGO Committee on Migration.

Carol Barton is Women’s Division executive for community action.

Last Updated: 04/11/2014

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