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Week of Solidarity with The People Struggling Against Racism & Racial Discrimination 3/21-27

By USCRI March 21, 2024

By: Rosalind Ghafar Rogers, PhD, LMHC, Clinical Behavioral Health Subject Matter Expert with USCRI’s Refugee Health Services in Arlington, VA

 

On this day, 64 years ago, police in Sharpeville, South Africa opened fire and killed 69 and wounded more than 180 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws,” one of the most grievous instruments of apartheid, requiring nonwhite South Africans to carry documents that authorized their presence in restricted areas. Five years later, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted and serves as the principal international framework for fighting to eliminate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. In remembrance of the Sharpeville Massacre and the heroic struggle of the people of South Africa and the ongoing struggle of people across the globe, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed every year on March 21 followed by a week of solidarity with people struggling against racism and racial discrimination. International law defines racial discrimination as:

“any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life” (OHCHR, 1965).

There are now well over 114 million people worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes because of ethnic and racial persecution, war, and violence. Millions of asylum seekers, migrants, refugees, and internally displaced persons are victims of racial discrimination, xenophobia, and ethnic intolerance within their own homelands, as well as in countries of transit or destination, where they seek safe refuge. Human rights violations of asylum seekers, migrants and refugees are so commonplace, generalized, and widespread that they have become a defining feature of international migration. As both a root cause and byproduct of forced displacement, racism is also an obstacle to the solution of forced displacement.

When we think about racism, we often do so at the interpersonal level, but racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia against asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees can be overt or explicit and covert or implicit and occur across several levels. Racial discrimination can occur at the individual level when it is internalized as an acute and chronic stressor that activates physiological responses that trigger poorer physical and mental health and can result in self-devaluation, internalized oppression, and rejection of one’s own racial or ethnic identity and/or culture (Szaflarski & Bauldry, 2019). At the interpersonal level, racial discrimination occurs when one person’s racial bias influences their interactions and perceptions of other people and can result in the dehumanization of others. At the systemic or institutional level, racial discrimination occurs within institutions and systems of power whereby unfair policies, practices, or processes routinely produce or maintain inequalities across groups. Finally, structural racism is the cumulative and compounding effects of an array of societal factors that foster racial discrimination via mutually reinforcing systems (Cerda et al., 2023). Racial discrimination can manifest in various ways from physical violence, hate speech, direct threats, and microaggressions to racial profiling, housing discrimination, anti-immigration policies, and unequal treatment and access to jobs, criminal justice, social services, healthcare, and so on.

Racism and Racial Discrimination as a Cause and Byproduct of Forced Displacement

In countries around the world, from Ethiopia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo to Myanmar, India, Afghanistan, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes because of racial and ethnic discrimination and violence. For those who can escape their own homelands and make perilous journeys to destination countries, they often encounter a host of discriminatory practices and a climate of hostility. In some instances, migrants and refugees are unable to find safe refuge due to border closures and those who make it to a destination country may face an equally hostile reception, with policies that have made it increasingly difficult for certain nationalities and ethnic groups to be granted refuge in many Western countries (HRW, n.d.). Strict visa requirements for nationals of high refugee-producing countries have made it almost impossible for refugees to travel legally to European and other Western countries, and thus are forced to travel with no documents at all or forged/invalid documents (HRW, n.d.). These growing barriers to legal entry also put migrants and refugees at a higher risk for being trafficked and smuggled at great risk to their lives. Once they have entered a destination country, migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees may be met with a climate of hostility and xenophobia from detainment, threats of deportation and ineligibility for or limited access to government services to inflammatory, demonizing, and discriminatory discourse about migrants and refugees.

Impact of Racism and Racial Discrimination on Health, Mental Health, and Integration

Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees face multiple challenges in the host country, such as linguistic and cultural barriers, socioeconomic limitations, access to resources, stressors related to adaptation and everyday living, and a lack of or limited social support networks. One of the major stressors that affect the health and successful integration of migrants and refugees, especially those from racial-ethnic minority backgrounds is racism and discrimination (Szaflarski & Bauldry, 2019). Research has consistently shown that perceived discrimination is a stressor that erodes migrants’ and refugees’ protective resources and increases their risk of physical illness and poorer mental health outcomes (Li et al., 2016; Sangalang et al., 2019; Szaflarski & Bauldry, 2019; Ziersch et al., 2020). Experienced racial and/or ethnic discrimination among adult migrants and refugees has been associated with substance use, depression, anxiety, psychological distress, obesity, hypertension, less sense of belonging, lower levels of trust, and a reduced sense of control (Szaflarski & Bauldry, 2019; Ziersch et al., 2020). Among migrant and refugee youth, discrimination has been associated with lower self-esteem, poorer overall health, depressive symptoms, and internalizing and externalizing problems (Borho et al., 2022).

Moreover, racial/ethnic minority migrants and refugees experience discrimination differently from host-country counterparts because experiences of discrimination occur at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. For example, darker skin tones and lower English-language proficiency have been linked to greater levels of discrimination among migrants and refugees (Szaflarski & Bauldry, 2019). Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees from the Middle East and Africa report experiencing higher incidents of discrimination compared to European migrants and refugees. Higher rates of discrimination have also been reported at the intersection of visa status and race/ethnicity for migrants and refugees from Africa; visa status, gender, race/ethnicity, and religion for Muslim women; and visa status, race/ethnicity, and religion for asylum seekers from the Middle East (Ziersch et al., 2020). Furthermore, research has shown that the relationship between a longer refugee determination process and poorer mental health could be partially attributable to living difficulties that include discrimination and stressors related to navigating the asylum process (Li et al., 2016).

The anecdotal and research evidence is clear about the pervasiveness of discrimination against migrants and refugees, spanning across all phases of migration and influencing all contexts, systems, and environments that migrants and refugees encounter along their arduous journeys. In the fight against racism and racial discrimination, we must strive to recognize that we all share the basic traits of what it is to be human and live as one human family, regardless of our race, ethnicity, immigration status, or any other differences.

 

All of us know how stubbornly racism can cling to the mind and how deeply it can infect the human soul. … And yet however hard the battle will be, we will not surrender. Whatever the time it will take, we will not tire. The very fact that racism degrades both the perpetrator and the victim commands that, if we are true to our commitment to protect human dignity, we fight on until victory is achieved.

~ Nelson Mandela’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, 1994

 

References

Borho, A., Morawa, E., Schug, C., & Erim, Y. (2023). Perceived post-migration discrimination: the perspective of adolescents with migration background. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 32, 2427–2438. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-022-02084-6

Cerda, I. H., Macaranas, A. R., Liu, C. H., & Chen, J. A. (2023). Strategies for naming and addressing structural racism in immigrant mental health. American Journal of Public Health, 113, no. S1, S72-S79. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2022.307165

Human Rights Watch (HRW). (n.d.). Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Migrants, and Internally Displaced Persons.

Li, S. S., Liddell, B. J., & Nickerson, A. (2016). The relationship between post-migration stress and psychological disorders in refugees and asylum seekers. Current Psychiatry Reports18, 1-9.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Part 1, Article 1. United Nations.

Sangalang, C. C., Becerra, D., Mitchell, F. M., Lechuga-Peña, S., Lopez, K., & Kim, I. (2019). Trauma, post-migration stress, and mental health: A comparative analysis of refugees and immigrants in the United States. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health21, 909-919.

Szaflarski, M. & Bauldry, S. (2019). The Effects of Perceived Discrimination on Immigrant and Refugee Physical and Mental Health. Advances in Medical Sociology, 19, 173–204. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1057-629020190000019009.

Ziersch, A., Due, C. & Walsh, M. (2020). Discrimination: a health hazard for people from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds resettled in Australia. BMC Public Health, 20, 108. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-8068-3

 

 


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