World Conference on Xenophobia, Racism, and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration

Organized by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development
and the World Council of Churches in collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

On behalf of Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I would like to start by thanking the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development of the Holy See, the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for the organization of this timely, relevant and important conference.

I would like to start by reading a quote from Nelson Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

UNHCR for years has called for deepening the cooperation within and across faith communities to foster this type of dialogue to promote tolerance and respect of race, religion, and ethnicity.  This is at the heart of our mandate and I am personally touched by having the opportunity to represent the High Commissioner and our organization UNHCR.

Xenophobia and racism are causes of persecution and discrimination. I have witness myself millions of people being forced to leave their homes, their countries, their land, their families and their belongings because of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination.  From the Balkans, to Myanmar, from Central African Republic to Rwanda.  Conflicts have been trigger and ignited by Xenophobia and discrimination. These causes made people move both within their country borders and beyond their own countries. Stateless persons are also often affected, as discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion, or language is a common and recurrent cause of denying the right to citizenship.

A number of legal instruments have been developed in an attempt to reduce, mitigate and address Xenophobia and Discrimination.

The ICERD (International Convention on the Elimination of all form of Racial Discrimination). ICERD’s has a protective role in addressing elimination of racial discrimination, promoting understanding, outlawing hate speech, and criminalizing membership in racist organizations.


The Durban Review Conference of 2009, supports the perspective that more can be done to address discrimination. It includes parts explicitly relating to asylum-seekers, refugees, and IDPs, as well as to arbitrary deprivation of nationality. The Durban Review Conference gives us examples of how States can engage in this process include but are not limited to training law enforcement, immigration, and border officials with a view to sensitize them to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance; grant refugees non-discriminatory access to services; promote social awareness on values of tolerance and respect; and refrain from taking measures that would arbitrarily deprive persons of their nationality or render them stateless.


Grounded into article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Geneva Convention for Refugees is the centerpiece of International Refugee Protection today. At its very heart in article 1 the Convention endorses a single definition of refugee which embrace 5 grounds of persecution, including race or nationality (in addition to religion, membership to particular social group and political opinion). The Protocol of 1961 has added other elements of persecution such as sexual orientation and belonging to a particular social group.

Xenophobia and discrimination are, unfortunately, present in all phases of cycle of human mobility and displacement. Over my 25 years working experience with forced displacement and refugee and internally displaced emergencies, I have witness dramatic situations of thousands or millions of people being persecuted because of ethnic, racial and religious discrimination. I recall particularly the refugee emergency of Central African Republic were over 180,000 people were forced to leave CAR into Cameroon and other neighboring countries because of their religious affiliation. Children cut by machetes, women and girls escaping from rape and abuse, desperate disintegrated families walking for weeks through the forests to seek safety and protection

Today, many of these refugees escape from these horrors to find protection n the countries that receive them but they also find stigmatization and discrimination. Today in Europe refugees express their fear of discrimination and xenophobic trends.

An unprecedented 65 million persons are forcibly displaced around the world today.  Racism and related intolerance further worsen their already precarious situations and become obstacles to their access to rights. We have recently witnessed a proliferation of xenophobic narratives, hate speech, and inflammatory statements directed against migrants and refugees at all levels of society, often exacerbated by increasing concerns over security and integration capacity and fueled by irresponsible political agendas, media reporting and a limited moral leadership.

In 2018 we have observed with great concern expressions of intolerance in the US (situation with separation of families), Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia, Germany or Italy, just to mention some examples of what seems to indicate a worsening of the global situation. These trends threaten to undermine the institution of asylum and even led at times to violence against refugees, migrants and stateless.

I would like us to reflect on the amplifying power of the web on xenophobic narratives. The proliferation of hateful content on the Internet, including increasing number of Facebook groups that promote and incite hatred against asylum seekers, refugees and migrants has been reported, while still many states have not ratified the Additional Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime concerning the criminalization of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature. There is a need to exerting prior editorial control or some form of filtering and selection of messages that instigate hatred, discrimination and promote xenophobia. Moreover, it has increased the possibility of anonymity, which fosters a sense of impunity

We need to re-double efforts - both at the human and institutional levels - to counter resurging racism, xenophobia, and political populism. At the human level, it is time to shine the spotlight on many innovative initiatives to promote tolerance and assist migrants and refugees, including media reports and human interest stories that have countered vitriolic rhetoric* (Example of Belgium, Metchelet).  Also the many individual and communities expressing their solidarity and support for persons who have been compelled to flee their homes. It is critical to capitalize on these positive developments and galvanize further commitment and action by sharing these stories more widely.

From our side, UNHCR already incorporates anti-xenophobia activities into its operations worldwide. On its note “Combating Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related Intolerance through a Strategic Approach”, UNHCR provides guidance to all operations to design and implement key operational actions. In the context of the reintegration of refugees in their countries of origin, we are engaged in promoting reconciliation and peaceful co-existence. We have enhanced our community protection work by empowering refugees and ensure that their voices are at the center our decisions as mandated organization for their protection.  We have also increased our anti-xenophobia efforts in many of our operations around the world in partnership with civil society, media and private actors by promoting education, awareness and curiosity on sharing experiences.


I would like to conclude by emphasizing that:

  • Human rights, with non-discrimination as a core principle, are inalienable entitlements – not a privilege.  There is a need to strengthen the effectiveness of international, regional and national legal and judicial instruments. Conventions, laws, decrees cannot further incite xenophobia and discrimination.
  • Now more than ever we should renew, all-out efforts to ensure that the protection of all human being remains life-saving, non-political, and fundamentally humanitarian.
  • We must join efforts to tackle the root causes of all forms of intolerance, in recognition of the connections that racism and xenophobia can have to the displacement and plight of persons in need of safety from violence and persecution.
  • Education and awareness are essential to reduce the impact of populist agendas that promote xenophobia and discrimination.
  • We are not exempt ourselves from being victims of discrimination, generalization and stereotypes. We need to go back to the basic principles of respect, dignity, equality and humanity.
  • We can jointly counteract these trends with positive experiences of social cohesion, equality and integration which promote a culture of tolerance and respect in our societies.  There are fantastic examples here in Italy and throughout the world where integration has been successful.  Let’s do it for all of us!


Thanks again for this unique opportunity!