By: Laura Manzi

Countering episodes of xenophobia against migrants is a major objective, which transcends temporal and geographical limits. According to the ECLAC definition, xenophobia is an atavistic problem that derives from the feeling of fear towards foreigners, different ethnic groups or people whose identity is unknown.

Xenophobia and discrimination are persistent issues, therefore the responses and complaints should be effective and continuous as well. The numerous racist and xenophobic incidents  (such as verbal and physical attacks and social exclusion), that increased due to the health, social and economic consequences of COVID-19 outbreak have demonstrated that with greater economic instability, more xenophobic expressions and actions are registered. 

The alarming discrimination and stigmatization of migrants during a crisis situation is not a new phenomenon. Even so, the usual hostile narrative of many media and the political instrumentalization of the migration issue, together with the financial impact of COVID-19, has caused a worsening of xenophobic phenomena.


Why do economic crises exacerbate episodes of xenophobia against migrants?

The research report on xenophobia in migratory contexts published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation investigates the factors that exacerbate discrimination in times of socioeconomic crisis, mentioning the following:

  • The fear fostered by an unstable internal and external economic situation of a country, which turns into prejudice against migrants as a form of emotional outlet;
  • The anxiety generated by the (wrong) feeling of not being able to access limited resources; in this case, xenophobia is fueled by the concern of having to compete in order to benefit from these resources;
  • The economic, political and social difficulties, the feeling of marginalization and exclusion experienced by some population can incite xenophobic feelings towards migrants.

In the current context of the COVID-19 crisis we can detect the three factors mentioned above. The highest levels of poverty, inequality and hunger in Latin America, as well as globally, indicate an increase in the discontent and dissatisfaction of the population. Concern, uncertainty and fear regarding the advance of the crisis have contributed to channeling these feelings towards manifestations of xenophobia against migrants.

Analyzing and understanding the aspects that lead to an increase in xenophobia during economic crises does not mean to justify discriminatory actions. On the contrary, it is important to understand these motivations and underlying causes in order to reveal the presence of structural problems that are not related to migration, and which nevertheless use migrants as scapegoats.


How can the media contribute to counteracting xenophobic attitudes in times of COVID-19?

The report on Migrants and the COVID-19 pandemic: An Initial Analysis, published by the IOM, reveals some initiatives and tips to follow, addressed in particular to the media, to counter xenophobic episodes during the COVID-19 outbreak. Among those recommendations, the report suggests:

  • Disseminate verified information, as xenophobic reactions and stigmatization are more frequent when there is a lack of clear and widely disseminated information about the transmission of the pandemic or its prevention measures, and the availability and distribution of resources and aid measures (by the State or other national and international institutions).
  • Portray different ethnic groups in media materials, to broadly show the different communities that are being affected by the pandemic and capture them as they work together to prevent the spread of COVID-19, thus inviting cooperation against a common challenge.
  • Write balanced and contextualized media reports, disseminating information based on evidence and helping combat misinformation that could lead to xenophobia episodes.
  • Request the participation of socially influential people to stimulate reflection on the condition of migrants who suffer from xenophobic manifestations and on how to support them, and of respected celebrities to amplify messages aimed at reducing stigma.

The vulnerability of migrants should not be used as an immediate scapegoat, through xenophobic demonstrations, to deal with situations of socio-economic crisis. Reversing this narrative and disseminating information and data about migrants’ contribution to the economy is, today more than ever, a fundamental act to combat xenophobia.