The Financial Crisis and Xenophobia
The Financial Crisis and Xenophobia



Net Migration Rates, 2008. From:

In my experience as a politician, I’d say that when things go wrong in a country, there are two potential targets: one is the government, the other is the foreigners.”1
- Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and former Prime Minister of Portugal.

One worrying consequence of the global downturn has been a rise in anti-migrant and anti-immigrant sentiment in countries with significant expatriate populations, most notably, in Europe. In February 2009, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres averred, “Xenophobia is an inevitable trend in many parts of the world when the economic situation deteriorates.”2

This analysis will examine the spectrum of anti-migrant sentiment in Europe, its economic and social contexts, the global nature of this phenomenon and governmental responses to this trend.

A Broad Spectrum in Europe

In Italy:

A wave of attacks on migrants took place in Italy around October 2008 (right in the middle of the economic crisis). Among the incidents which were: the fatal assault in Milan of Abdul Guibre (born in Burkina Faso and raised in Italy), the injury of a Ghanaian – Emmanuel Bonsu Foster – in Parma, the battery of a Chinese man – Tong Honsheng – in Rome and the gunning down of six African immigrants in Castel Volturno, a Mafia stronghold.3

In response, the Italian Parliament debated that month, “whether Italy was facing what newspaper headlines referred to as aracism emergency.’” 4 In addition, a top official from the Vatican, Msgr. Agostino Marchetto, decried what he saw as “discrimination, xenophobia and racism” towards immigrants in Italian society.5

In Germany:

In late September 2009, German police began investigations on a string of letters sent from members of the right-wing National Democratic Party (NDP) to politicians from immigrant backgrounds. Around 30 candidates received letters telling them to “go home” and one contained a “five point plan for moving foreigners gradually back to their home countries.”6

In response to the NDP letter campaign, the Berlin State prosecutor’s office commenced investigations on incitement to racial hatred. Despite these tactics (described as “Nazi-like” by BBC’s correspondent), the NDP poll numbers remain poor and it has no seats in the national Parliament.7

In Russia:

According to the New York Times, a Moscow-based human rights group announced in February 2009 that ten people have been killed in Moscow, in what were apparently racist attacks, since the start of this year.

Most migrants working in Russia (an estimated 10 million people) hail from former USSR republics in Central Asia and work in the construction business, where they find that “employers are increasingly withholding wages for work already completed.” In addition, migrant workers often find themselves at the mercy of the police, who demand bribes and administer beatings.8

As a result of the financial crisis, migrant workers are the first to be laid off at the construction sites where they primarily work. This has had far-reaching consequences; remittances to migrants’ countries of origin have dried up, negatively affecting Central Asian economies.9

In the United Kingdom:

On September 10, 2009, the BBC reported that foreign students spending the summer at a college in Sussex were physically attacked by local youth.10

Additionally, 100 members of the Roma Community (an Eastern and Southern European ethnic minority commonly referred to as Gypsies) in Belfast were flown back to Romania in June 2009 amid concerns for their safety due to attacks on their community.11 One incident involved a gang of youths who hurled rocks and bricks and shouted Nazi slogans at the Roma.12

In Aberdeen, several youths attacked a Polish man, leaving him seriously ill in a hospital on July 11th, 2009.13

In Greece:

In May 2009, the Inter Press Agency reported that the financial crisis was taking its toll on migrant workers in Greece. Anna Triandafyllidou, senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) pointed to a “negative trend in media coverage describing irregular flows” as “creating a feeling of insecurity.”

That same month, the president of the Pakistani Community in Athens listed 20 attacks against Asians over a 30 day period, concentrated in working-class neighborhoods.14

Economic and Social Context

The rate of migration soared in previous decades when countries in the European Union and the United States enjoyed economic growth and opportunities abounded for all. However, as the global economy soured, many industries where migrants predominated began to shed jobs fast. In order to reduce the number of migrants claiming benefits, foreign workers are often encouraged to return to their home countries with promises of lump-sum benefits.

As The Economist reported in January 2009,

As long as the slump was limited to rich countries, the impact on migrants was relatively predictable: some would go home, at least for a time […] But as economic misery has spread to poorer countries, the picture has been muddied. In Europe […] migrants may opt to stay. Young and single workers may choose to move on, but migrant families, especially, may conclude that they are better off claiming welfare in rich countries than returning home.15

Thus, migrants who choose to remain may attract negative attention from frustrated local populations. This frustration, which is sometimes exploited by pre-existing interest groups, can and does spill over into violence against those who choose to stay.

The media can also play a role in this cycle; as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights asserts, “xenophobic and racist attacks on migrants are often a response to a distorted perception, at times fomented by the media, of the scope of irregular migration and its consequences for the host societies.”16

The global intelligence company, Stratfor Forecasting, issued a brief in March 2009 provides some historical and social context for the current wave of anti-migrant sentiment:

Minorities are often seen as either the source of the economic malaise or as unnecessary expenditures of the public purse. [Furthermore] An economic recession also creates problems because businesses will begin seeking out migrant workers. Not only are they often more willing to work for less pay than citizens, but if they are illegal they can be fired without cause or trade union intervention at any time.17

Thus, migrants who keep their jobs because they accept harsh terms of labor may also be viewed as “taking away native jobs.”

Economic and Social Implications

As a result of job losses, remittances from migrants back to their home countries are drying up, with disastrous economic effects. According to The Economist:

flows to Africa, which had earlier boomed, stagnated last year [2008]; flows to parts of Latin America dropped. In November [2008] the head of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, Supachai Panitchpakdi, predicted that 2009 would see remittances to poor countries slide by 6%.18

In addition, the International Labour Organization (ILO) cautions that:

even if there are no job losses, migrant workers may be forced to accept lower wages and suffer poorer working conditions in an attempt to retain their jobs. According to past experience, migrant workers, especially women workers and those in irregular status are among the hardest hit and most vulnerable during crisis situations.19

Finally, as the International Organization for Migration notes, “trying to combat the financial crisis by simply cutting immigration may make the situation worse. […] Countries of origin are likely to experience influxes of returning migrants, which may result in economic and social instability in poorer countries,” many of which have young, expanding populations which will not absorb millions of returnees easily.20

Not Just a European Phenomenon

The recent rise in xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment is by no means exclusive to the European continent. At the world conference on racism in April 2009, Haiti’s Vice Foreign Minister Jacques Nixon Myrthil said Haiti could be hurt significantly by xenophobia linked to the financial crisis. In the Bahamas, for example, where around 80,000 Haitians live and work, Amnesty International reports increasing human rights violations against workers.21

In South Africa, African migrants from Zimbabwe and Malawi are starting to leave cities like Johannesburg amid fears of xenophobic violence which, in the month of May 2008, killed around 23people. In Durban, over 150 people vandalized a Nigerian-owned bar in May 2008. According to the Earth Times, the violence has displaced 13,000 people.22

Thus, European anti-migrant sentiment must be viewed as part of a larger trend in xenophobic attitudes exacerbated by the global recession.


By and large, the policy response from national governments has been precisely the opposite of recommendations made by the International Organization for Migration, which cautioned against limiting migration. For example, in Russia, Vladimir Putin called for quotas on permits for work visas to be temporarily cut in half.23 Many other governments, such as the UK and Germany have followed suit, stepping up deportations and implementing measures which make it difficult for migrants to enter the country.

Some lawmakers express anxiety over this turn of events. Jean-Leonard Touadi, an Italian Member of Parliament, originally of Congolese descent, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “You can’t say all Italians are racist, but it would also be dangerous to underestimate what’s happening […] Faced with social and economic crisis, it’s easy to push rage and frustration on the foreigner. It shouldn’t make this a war between poor Italians and poor immigrants.”24

Across the English Channel, at a Scottish Labour Conference, Secretary Jim Murphy exhorted lawmakers not to succumb to “credit-crunch racism” – xenophobia caused by the economic crisis – stating:

While understanding people’s fears and anxieties, we as a Labour Party are very clear – no one should ever pander to credit crunch racism. This crisis wasn’t caused by a Polish plumber or a Bangladeshi shop worker – it was caused by irresponsible actions of international bankers. Our party should relentlessly make clear that it is the irresponsible bankers, some of whom are on £1m bonuses – not industrious migrant workers on the national minimum wage – that caused this financial calamity.25

Ultimately, however, changing public attitudes, even in times of economic prosperity, is a slow and arduous process. Reversing the economic decline would go a long way towards reducing xenophobic sentiments; however, without a concerted effort to promote integration on a community-level, it is tremendously unlikely that any long-term progress would be made towards fully accepting the contributions of migrant workers to the global economy.

1 McGuirk, Rod. “Refugees to be Victims of Economic Collapse – UN,” The Irrawaddy, February 23, 2009.
2 Ibid.
3 Donadio, Rachel, “Clashes Fuel Talk of Anti-Immigrant Surge in Italy,” The New York Times, October 12, 2008.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 “German Race-Hate Letters Probed.” BBC News. September 23, 2009.
7 “NDP sends offensive letter to candidates with Turkish background.” Deutsche Welle. September 22, 2009.
8 Schwirtz, Michael, “For Russia’s Migrants, Economic Despair Douses Flickers of Hope.” New York Times, February 9, 2009.
9 Lowe, Christian. “Financial crisis hits migrant workers in Russia.” New York Times, January 14, 2009.
10 “Race attacks on foreign students.” BBC News.September 10, 2009.
11 “Roma’s exit ‘more than racism,’” BBC News. July 9, 2009.
12 Alberici, Emma, “Romanians driven from Belfast homes.” ABC News. June 18, 2009.
13 “Plea after ‘brutal’ racist attack,” BBC News, 13 July, 2009.
14 Fotiadis, Apostolis. “GREECE: Financial Crisis Multiplies Migrant Miseries,” Inter Press Agency, May 6, 2009.
15 “Global Migration and the Downturn: The People Crunch,” The Economist, January 15, 2009. 16 “A human rights approach to global migration governance.” Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations. April 2009.
17 “Europe: Xenophobia and Economic Recession.” Stratfor Intelligence Brief, March 4, 2009.
18 Ibid.
19 Abimourched, Rola, Khan, Azfar et al. “The global economic crisis and the impact on migrant workers.” International Labour Organization Feature Story. April 07, 2009.
20 “IOM Policy Brief- The Impact of the Global Financial Crisis.” International Organization for Migration, January 2009.
21 Davis, Nick. “Bahamas Outlook Clouds for Haitians” BBC News. September 20, 2009.
22 “Migrants pack their bags as racist attacks spread in South Africa.” BBC News. 21 May 2008.
23 Schwirtz, ibid.
24 Donadio, ibid.
25 “Warning over credit-crunch racism” BBC News. March 8, 2009.

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