Xenophobia in the times of new right-wing populism

Throughout the history of mankind, the “foreign” has always frightened people. Unknown and different approaches to life including culture, language, appearance and traditions were often seen as a threat or evil. Hence “foreigners” have always been encountered with prejudice and hate. They were often blamed for otherwise inexplicable phenomena, problems and grievances. Especially in times of social and economic hardships, the “foreign” easily becomes a scapegoat for all kinds of ills, which has too often culminated in genocides and wars. “Xenophobia”, the “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign” (Merriam-Webster) has noticeably increased over the last years. The financial crisis, terrorism and the flow of refugees have fostered sentiments against the “other”, leading to an increase in political, societal and economic intolerance.

The populistic parties in Western countries have won seats in the national parliaments, gaining political weight and societal approval, and xenophobically motivated incidents have reached an unprecedented level during the last decade. Especially asylum-seekers and migrants from predominately Muslim states like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan have been targets of xenophobic violence. They are particularly vulnerable, as they can often be easily distinguished by their appearance and expressions of their culture, religion and language (Human Rights First, p. 1).

In 2016, 921 attacks against shelters for asylum seekers got registered in Germany by the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) of which 857 were attributed to radical right-wing terrorists. This means that the amount of such attacks has quintupled since the start of the refugee rush (Tagesschau).

A similarly gloomy picture can be drawn in the United States, where the Black Lives Matter-movement appeared for a reason. An annual FBI report reveals that “hate crime” incidents increased by 7 percent from 2014 to 2015, to 5,850 incidents in total, with an increase of 67 percent of crimes targeting Muslims (McNeil).

“Hate crime” is defined “[…] by a 1990 law which classifies crimes against individuals or property that are in some part motivated by race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality” (The Economist). What makes this issue even more problematic is that in the USA the numbers and statistics might often be biased and played down on purpose hence the full extent of the xenophobic hate and violence can only be imagined. Therefore, the number of unreported hate crimes can only be estimated: For example, 85 police agencies in cities with populations exceeding 100,000 people did not participate at all in the aforementioned FBI report. This incompleteness and unwillingness to address and counter these crimes constitutes a significant part of problem (ibid). Hate crimes are often not considered and classified as such in order to keep the numbers of a district down. As a result of these distorted statistics many people do not see the need to address these very real problems. 

Hate crimes and xenophobic violence deprive the victims of their basic human rights protection, since they often lack formal legal status and in many cases become a pawn in the hands of the powerful. Furthermore, refugees and “illegal” migrants are excluded through the erection of artificial barriers in the White-dominated legal and political system. Therefore, minorities experience discrimination, prejudice and intolerance on a daily basis. This spills over to all areas of life, “leads to major protection challenges in many parts of the world” and might force "[…] these […] vulnerable individuals to seeking available services and protection [elsewhere]” (Human Rights First, p. 2). 

This alarming trend goes hand in hand with growing success of right-wing populism, as exemplified by Marine Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany or the election of Donald Trump in the USA. States have the general obligation and responsibility to protect their citizens from violence and threats, including discrimination. The compliance with this governmental duty cannot be granted by such political parties and politicians. President Trump, for example has accused Mexicans of being rapists and decreed the Muslim Ban, which discriminates against people from some predominantly Muslim states, depriving them of their legal rights due to their faith and nationality. Policies like the Muslim Ban are seen by many as a legitimatization for acting out openly their xenophobic mentality, which is nurtured by such racist statements of high political officials. When the government openly embraces xenophobic world views and discriminates against certain ethnic or religious groups, many people feel confirmed in their racist political ideology. Thereby, right-wing populists indirectly contribute to the increasing numbers of violent attacks against “foreigners”. 

At this point, independent bodies and organizations, like NGOs, play a crucial role in combating this trend before it spreads even more. In the case of the USA under Trump, the independence of NGOs from governmental bodies is essential for providing credible information about violations of human rights to all citizens. Thus, NGOs and all members of civil society are facing the serious challenge of having to establish a better and lasting protection for affected individuals and persecuted religious and ethnic groups in opposition to these negative developments and threats to human rights in order to create an environment where everyone can prosper. 

Individuals, who fear any of the aforementioned threats or have been met with violence, are hindered in their freedom of movement and cannot participate in society the way they want to, to fully realize their potential. Incidents in the week following Trump’s election, for example when some African-American children were told to sit in the back of the bus or the very real threat against a black student in Texas to shoot her if she dares to come back to University the next day reflect this highly problematic societal drift to the right.  It is the state’s obligation to speak out and to persecute xenophobic perpetrators – if the government (knowingly or unknowingly) fails, a rising number of incidents and a decreasing inhibition threshold to commit a xenophobically motivated act of violence might be the result. If the state sends out a message of impunity, this constitutes a “salto mortale“ for human rights and risks throwing our society back into darker times. To make the concerted counter-measures happen, to persecute perpetrators and to address xenophobia requires political will and effort. If this is lacking and states do not prosecute offenders, monitor and report bias-motivated violence or even do not speak out against intolerance and discrimination as seen under Trump, this is a huge step back. Therefore, demonstrations and movements are necessary to show government and right-wing political parties that they do not meet the requirements of a modern and open-minded society.  



“BKA Statistik. Mehr als 900 Übergriffe auf Flüchtlingsheime.”Tagesschau. ARD, 28t December 2016.. Web. 29 March 2017.


“Combating Xenophobic Violence. A Framework for Action.” Human Rights First. Web. 29 March 2017.


“Hate Crime by Numbers. The Apparent Rise in Hate-Crime since the Election is Likely to be Short-Lived“ The Economist.10 December 2016. Web. 29 March 2017.

McNeil, Patrick. ”Annual FBI Report Indicates Increase in Hate Crimes.” The Leadership Conference. 15 November 2016. Web. 29 March 2017.


"xenophobia." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2017.Web. 29 March 2017.

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