How to Fight Xenophobia: Tips from a Venezuelan

Many of the millions of Venezuelans already living abroad are at permanent risk of xenophobia and discrimination. What should we do?

Photo: Americas Quarterly

Venezuelans continue to leave the country. The fuel crisis, failing electricity and water services, the lack of a functional health system, and so many other things continue to make life miserable for Venezuelans who have no choice but to leave. With five million people already settling in other countries, there’s also those who move for family reunification. All these paisanos can potentially be victims of xenophobia and discrimination in their receiving countries, much more now in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, when resources are scarce. It’s not the governments that reject them (some are doing everything possible to protect them); it’s individuals who discriminate just because they’re foreigners. I know this reality very well because, as a migrant woman, I’ve suffered it first hand.

So, as an answer to this, and to many of the injustices that we’re currently seeing around the world (thank God for cellphone cameras!), I’ve come up with a mini-manual, a tool, a series of tips that can help us navigate these ugly situations, and that can empower us as migrants to advocate for ourselves when we confront people whose values are not aligned with a humanitarian, solidary and empathic perspective of the world. 

These are some of the tips from this Venezuelans’ Guide to Combat Xenophobia; Venezuelans (and non-Venezuelans, this will help you too!) take note.

Tip No. 1:  Know Your Concepts!

There’s xenophobia, and there’s discrimination. Knowing the difference between these two will (hopefully) generate the empathy you seek towards migrants, because you’ll understand that the person practicing them lacks education on values, and was (probably) raised to be prejudiced. It’ll also put into perspective the possibility of this person changing their mentality if he or she is able to unlearn those prejudices, and either let go of them altogether, or learn new attitudes that are inclusive and conscious of the situation of migrants and refugees. Keep in mind that if someone is a xenophobe, he/she will probably be homophobic, or machista, or racist, or several other prejudiced attitudes as well, so beware. Lots of unlearning and new learning have to be done.

Where do you go for these definitions?  I always find the contents of the Interamerican Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance extremely useful. It’s the first binding document that offers definitions of discrimination, direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, multiple and aggravated discrimination, and intolerance. As for xenophobia, go to this quick guide put together by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Tip No. 2: Know Your Facts!

Arguments used by xenophobes against migrants and refugees are based on myths, which are based on hearsay, not facts. “All migrants are criminals”, “all migrants come to steal our jobs”, “all migrants want to live off of the government with the taxes we pay”, are things I’ve heard (even from migrants who have already settled!).  So, one key to combating xenophobia and discrimination against migrants and refugees is knowing your facts. 

Find out the number of migrants arrested for criminal activities (it’ll be super small); find out the percentage of recipients of social programs who are migrants (yes, it’ll be super small, too); and for the economic argument, I really appreciate this piece by the Center for Global Development, which really lays out the concrete benefits migrants bring (when regularized): 

One key to combating xenophobia and discrimination against migrants and refugees is knowing your facts.

“(a) less competition in the informal sector, as some refugees would shift to formal work, potentially leading to employment opportunities for low-skilled hosts in the informal sector; (b) more productive formal businesses, as refugees could fill labor shortages and expand the labor supply; (c) more formal employment opportunities, as the result of the increase in productivity; (d) the upgrading of hosts to higher-paying positions, as the migrants and refugees take on more manual-intensive jobs, (e) a fiscal stimulus, as refugees would earn more and spend more in the economy, and finally, (f) an increase in tax revenues, as refugees would earn/spend more, and will therefore also pay taxes.”

Just lovely.

Tip No. 3: Find Your Allies!

Whether you’re an NGO working for migrants and refugees (as a migrant or refugee yourself) or an independent activist, it’s crucial to find allies, in other words, natives in the receiving country that are sensitive to the particular reality migrants and refugees confront. If they are influencers, even better, and I don’t mean massive ones, I mean, people with influence in the particular place you are, be it in your workplace, your school, the store you get your groceries at, or at the broader level (like people in the government). This is the type of person who doesn’t remain silent when faced with xenophobia, and will try as best as she can to challenge discrimination. You need to know who these people are, and you need to cultivate that relationship, and reach out to them when needed.

Tip No. 4: Know Your Rights!

The first step to empowering yourself and being an effective advocate for your rights and those of other migrants and refugees is knowing your rights. You can start at the broader level, and you need to review the legislation in the country where you are. Because more often than not, these countries have laws that are aligned with human rights, and these laws will probably lean towards protecting migrants and refugees. I know, what the law says and what you experience in your daily life are two different things, but knowing your rights as a migrant or refugee is step one to demand them.

At the international level, there are a number of conventions or resolutions that protect the rights of migrants and refugees. Read them, learn them. Some of these include the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration. You also need to know the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and its OAS equivalent, the Inter-American Program for the Promotion and Protection of the Human Rights of Migrants, Including Migrant Workers and Their Families. 

There are many other laws that protect migrants and refugees against labor abuse, sexual harassment, human trafficking, etc. We should all know them, and know them well.

Tip No. 5: Know When and How to React!

My final tip is very personal. Each of us has a different level of “tolerance” when it comes to hearing someone attack us for being a migrant, or denying us an opportunity, or an apartment, or a job. My last visit to Ecuador, where I have longtime friends from my college years, was difficult. I kept hearing “you are not like that, but all Venezuelans want to…” and then they would say something really bad about my compatriotas. Every chance I got, I tried to have a conversation about the benefits that migrants and refugees bring and the gruesome reality Venezuelans face back in a country that forces them to leave. Sometimes it went well, and I was able to make them see our perspective. But sometimes, it went awfully wrong (let’s just say some friendships went sour). This made me think we need to know when to engage. Engaging to create more conflict is not my advice. Only engage if you think there’s an opportunity for dialogue. Are you being attacked in the middle of the street? At the store you are shopping for groceries? Is the attack quite violent? Do not engage. Not worth it.

There are many other tips, some that involve working with institutions or other bigger partners. But these are some that, on an individual level, I find crucial to combat xenophobia and discrimination. The hardest part is when it comes from fellow Venezuelan migrants or refugees. That really hurts. But we have no choice, we have to keep working against it.


* The opinions are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States (OAS).