The Inhumane Treatment of Forced Migrants and Its Roots in Xenophobia

Imagine waking up one morning and coming to the realization that your entire world has been turned upside down. The life you once held dear has been destroyed by disorder and complete persecution. You have become subjected to a nation in upheaval. There is political unrest and carnage at every corner. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, but you still strive for a better livelihood. You rely on the idea that there is a better side of humanity, one that will not sit idly by and watch such turmoil take place. You put your trust into outside governments that label you as an “asylum seeker” or “refugee.” Still, you have faith. To your surprise and ultimate detriment, you are placed in conditions that are as unbearable as what you just fled. The dark side of humanity has officially reared its head as you become the victim of cruel treatment. Exposed to exploitation and abuse sponsored by those known around the world as the “good guys”. This is the reality thousands of refugees and asylum seekers around the world face.

When we look at who should be held responsible, it is easy to blame an individual’s home government; however, in all actuality, those facilitating such atrocities behind the scenes are just as much to blame. This article will examine how the world’s leading governments (which are the states with a dominant position characterized by their extensive ability to exert influence or project power on a global scale )[1] have been complicit in the inhumane treatment of refugees. Section IV will explore the idea of forced migration and how the world’s leading governments’ response is rooted in xenophobia focusing on refugees’ experiences in Libya as well as the treatment of Syrian and Haitian refugees.

Terminology and International Policies

To better understand the migrant crisis, an exploration into some terminology including, forced migration, refugees, asylum seekers, and xenophobia is needed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) defines “forced migration” as “displacement because of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations.”[2] Forced migration covers an extensive range of instances of displacement or involuntary movement.[3] Two examples of forced migrants are refugees and asylum seekers.

An asylum-seeker is someone who flees their country due to volatile conditions such as human rights violations and political or social unrest.[4] These individuals are in the process of seeking protection but have not been granted a secured status as a refugee.[5] While asylum-seekers are supposed to go through a rigorous application process before being accepted into a country, during mass movements of refugees, individual interviews with asylum seekers who cross borders can be bypassed.[6] These groups are often called “prima facie” refugees.[7] The bypass reduces administrative burdens and allows for immediate assistance. Usually, asylum seekers are awarded limited privileges as compared to refugees.[8] While asylum-seekers are not legally categorized as refugees, they are still entitled to seek asylum.[9] Every human has the right to seek and enjoy asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR).[10]

Refugees are persons who have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution, conflict (due to race, religion, or nationality), violence, or natural disaster and need international protection.[11] In recent years there has been an increase of refugees fleeing one traumatic incident after another.[12]

The 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (the “1951 Convention”) work together to create a universal definition of “refugee” and establish basic rights and obligations afforded to those given refugee status.[13] The 1951 Convention is the leading and most significant provision for establishing an international standard for protecting refugees.[14] Some of the rights afforded to refugees include anti-discrimination; public relief and assistance; freedom of religion; housing; education; freedom to earn wages; and, ultimately, good treatment[15] One of the most essential components of the 1951 Convention is the Article 33 principle of non-refoulement (no forced returns).[16] This principle ensures that refugees should not be turned away or be returned to the positions they fled.[17] The 1951 Convention is crucial because it only provides refugees with international protections, but it also imposes the responsibility to protect upon governments.[18]

Xenophobia is the attitudes, prejudices, and behavior that reject, exclude, or vilify persons based on the perception that they are outsiders or foreigners to their community, society, and national identity.[19] This is based on the idea that one’s nation is superior to others, also known as “nationalism.”[20]

Inhumane Treatment of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers

The upsurge of refugees and asylum-seekers in recent years has been coined the “refugee crisis” within the European Union (“EU”) and North America.[21] Alongside this increase, there have also been heightened instances of mistreatment against vulnerable populations.[22] For example, asylum-seekers and refugees in Canadian detention centers have been subjected to tragic circumstances such as: enduring solitary confinement, devastating housing conditions, and lack of adequate medical treatment leading to mental health issues.[23]

Within Europe, Syrian refugees have been treated with disregard.[24] Syrian children are engaging in labor instead of receiving an education, living in long-term detention centers with inadequate living conditions, and suffering from physical and mental abuse.[25] One recurring problem involves EU border guards coming across boats filled with refugees and barring them from seeking asylum, ultimately forcing the refugees to return to perilous settings.[26] Such actions are outlawed by Article 33 of the 1951 Convention.[27]

Libya arguably has the worst documentation of cruel and severe treatment of refugees.[28] Investigation into Libya’s response to the influx of refugees has brought forth extensive results.[29] Refugees have been exposed to unsanitary conditions, severe overcrowding, poor food and water quality, lack of nutrition and healthcare, violence, and torture by guards.[30] There have even been instances of beating, raping, and smuggling children.[31] These defenseless humans are not being granted rightful protection.[32]

Libya is a country with no refugee law or asylum system, and yet EU guards have been instructing Libyan Coast Guards to intercept asylum seekers to take them back to Libyan detention centers.[33] The EU acts as a leading government behind the scenes by supporting Libyan authorities’ abuse of refugees rather than condemning their actions.[34] The EU has taken legal and bureaucratic measures to reduce refugee migration instead of embracing and protecting them.[35]

Recently, Haiti has been hit with a trifecta of misfortune as it is reeling from the effects of COVID-19, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake, and the assassination of its president.[36] Altogether this has turned Haiti into an economic, political, and environmental disaster.[37] Although entitled to the right to seek asylum, many refugees have been stuck in between the U.S and Mexico border restricted from entry through Title 42.[38] Title 42 is an old public health law that grants the government the ability to take emergency action to stop the “introduction of communicable diseases.” [39] This law was revived by the Trump Administration to expel thousands of refugees with the reasoning that their entrance may increase the spread of COVID-19.[40]

As a result of such political barriers, Haitian refugees have been subjected to unbearable living conditions as they camp out on the border waiting and hoping for sanctuary.[41] Additionally, vulnerable populations have been met by cruel Texas border agents who have been photographed whipping the refugees while on horseback.[42] Moreover, the refugees have been turned away as the United States completely overlooks international law and the legal right to seek asylum.[43]

Roots in Xenophobia

There has always been the justification—better yet, the excuse—that the treatment of refugees is out of political and practical necessity.[44] The answer, however, is truly rooted in xenophobia. Xenophobia does not have an international definition nor is it explicitly mentioned in any international treaties;[45] however, the notion of xenophobia is indirectly outlined in various treaties between international actors in attempts to prohibit xenophobia within the international law sphere.[46] Such instances can be found in an emerging global network of states and other international actors to improve global cooperation to combat the problem of xenophobia.[47] These legal frameworks include the Global Compact for Refugees and a Global Compact on Migration[48] Even the United Nations Secretary-General has begun a global campaign to address and oppose xenophobia. [49] Even so, the issues with xenophobia continue to be prevalent around the world.

The EU and North American attitudes, specifically in the United States and Canada, towards refugees show clear examples of xenophobia. In the EU, many Europeans feel as if the rise in refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism.[50] Moreover, some Europeans believe that refugees will burden their country by taking jobs and social benefits traditionally reserved for citizens.[51] Europeans also did not see growing diversity as something that would better their country, but instead would make their nation worse.46 It is evident that negative views towards refugees and minorities are common within the EU.[52]

The U.S. has also had a long history of negative perspectives towards refugees and asylum seekers, viewing them as economically burdensome and as the “others.”[53] The language used to describe refugees is illustrative. Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly made xenophobic comments. In banning Syrian refugees, he stated, “[w]e don’t want them in our country.” [54] This is, unfortunately not an extreme view in the U.S. In 2015, few Americans wanted to take in Syrian refugees.[55]

The U.S. has also shown xenophobia through its actions, including its limited response to the Syrian refugee crisis.[56] Xenophobia has shifted the refugee politics within the U.S. as politicians promote certain national identities that include negative and hostile sentiments against refugees.[57] This is especially true with the conservative Trump Administration that still influences America’s political climate. An example can be found in the preservation of Title 42, even with the change in the presidency.[58]

As politics continue to embrace anti-refugee rhetoric and acts, the world’s leading governments need to understand the authority their words and actions have. When countries like the U.S. spew hate towards refugees, it encourages other nations to act the same way.[59] Further, when powerful countries within the EU turn their backs against refugees and asylum-seekers, it becomes another attack against people that have already suffered so much.


The world’s leading governments claim they are leaders, though they do nothing to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations. United Nations Signatories have a shared responsibility to protect these vulnerable populations under international law.[60] Encompassed in this duty is taking action to prevent or stop the refugee crisis from expanding. This obligation has been devastatingly breached, and this breach can be linked to xenophobia. Refugees and involuntary migrants have been subjected not only to the physical effects of xenophobia but also suffering from legal policies and rhetoric that are meant to keep refugees out and not allow them to exercise their right to seek asylum.[61] To address the appalling issue at hand, the right parties must be held accountable. There must be a focus on how the treatment of refugees is linked to bigotry, specifically xenophobia. Politicians and governments must be aware of the rhetoric they are spreading and how it impacts their communities. Overall, there must be a focus on xenophobia on an international scale in which solutions can be found.

  1. Alice L Miller, A superpower? No time soon, Hoover Institution, (last visited Oct 20, 2021).
  2. Forced migration or displacement, Migration Data Portal (Jan. 30, 2021),
  3. Id.
  4. Asylum-Seekers, United Nations High Comm’r For Refugees, seekers.html (last visited [September 27, 2021).
  5. Id.
  6. Id.
  7. Id.
  8. Refugees and Migrants- Frequently Asked Questions, United Nations High Comm’r For Refugees (Mar. 16, 2016), faqs.html.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Id.
  12. E. Tendayi Achiume, Governing Xenophobia, 51 Vand. J. Transnat’l L. 333 (2018).
  13. The 1951 Refugee Convention UNHCR, United Nations High Comm’r For Refugees (last visited Sep 29, 2021).
  14. Id.
  15. G.A. Res. 2198 (XXI), at Article 33, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (Dec. 16, 1967).
  16. Id.
  17. Refugees and Migrants- Frequently Asked Questions, United Nations High Comm’r For Refugees (Mar. 16, 2016), faqs.html.
  18. Id.
  19. Sarah D. Miller, Xenophobia toward refugees and other forced migrants, Ctr. For Int’l Governance Innovation (Sep. 12, 2018),
  20. Id.
  21. E. Tendayi Achiume, Beyond Prejudice: Structural Xenophobic Discrimination Against Refugees, 45 Geo. J. Int’l L. 323 (2014).
  22. Id.
  23. Brian Stauffer, I Didn’t Feel Like a Human in There, Human Rights Watch (June 17, 2021), mental.
  24. Syrian refugees: A neglected human rights crisis in Europe, Council Of Europe (Dec. 20, 2013),
  25. Id.
  26. Id.
  27. G.A. Res. 2198 (XXI), at Article 33, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (Dec. 16, 1967).
  28. No Escape from Hell: EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya, Human Rights Watch (Jul.27, 2020),
  29. Id.
  30. Id.
  31. Id.
  32. Id.
  33. Id.
  34. Id.
  35. Id.
  36. Karen Musalo Professor of International Law, Haitian migrants at the border: An asylum law scholar explains how the US skirts its legal and moral duties, The Conversation (2021), migrants-at-the-border-an-asylum-law-scholar-explains-how-us-skirts-its-legal-and-moral-duties-168556 (last visited Sep 28, 2021).
  37. Id.
  38. Id.
  39. Q&amp: A US title 42 policy to expel migrants at the border, Human Rights Watch (2021), (April 8, 2021).
  40. Id.
  41. US: Treatment of Haitian MIGRANTS DISCRIMINATORY, Human Rights Watch (2021), (Sep 21, 2021).
  42. Id.
  43. Id.
  44. Sarah D. Miller, Xenophobia toward refugees and other forced migrants, Ctr. For Int’l Governance Innovation (Sep. 12, 2018), forced migrants/.
  45. E. Tendayi Achiume, Governing Xenophobia, 51 Vand. J. Transnat’l L. 333 (2018).
  46. Id.
  47. Id.
  48. Id.
  49. Id.
  50. Jacob Poushter, European opinions on the refugee crisis in 5 charts, Pew Research Ctr (Sep.16, 2016),
  51. Id.
  52. Richard Wike, Negative views of minorities, refugees common in EU, Pew Research Ctr ( Jul. 11, 2016),
  53. Michael Tesler, Americans Have A Long History Of Opposing Refugees. But Most Support Afghan Asylum Seekers, Fivethirtyeight (Sep. 08, 2021), opposing-refugees-but-most-support-afghan-asylum-seekers/.
  54. Id.
  55. Id.
  56. Id.
  57. Id.
  58. Id.
  59. Sarah D. Miller, Xenophobia toward refugees and other forced migrants, Ctr. For Int’l Governance Innovation (Sep. 12, 2018), forced migrants/.
  60. The 1951 Refugee Convention UNHCR, United Nations High Comm’r For Refugees, (last visited Sep 29, 2021).
  61. E. Tendayi Achiume, Beyond Prejudice: Structural Xenophobic Discrimination Against Refugees, 45 Geo. J. Int’l L. 323 (2014).