UN chief sees pandemic encouraging xenophobia and hate speech

Recent occurrences point to a worrying trend.
Friday 08/05/2020
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press conference at the African Union headquarters during the 33rd African Union Summit, in Addis Ababa, last February. (AFP)
Warning. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press conference at the African Union headquarters during the 33rd African Union Summit, in Addis Ababa, last February. (AFP)

NEW YORK - UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Friday the coronavirus pandemic is unleashing “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” and appealed for “an all-out effort to end hate speech globally."

The UN chief said “anti-foreigner sentiment has surged online and in the streets, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have spread, and COVID-19-related anti-Muslim attacks have occurred.”

Some of the most pronounced cases of anti-Muslim bigotry came in India, after about 8,000 people in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation met for three days in March at the group's compound in New Delhi, shortly before the Indian government banned large gatherings

Members of the group and Muslims in general were subsequently blamed for spreading the disease. Politicians in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party were quoted on TV and in newspapers describing the Jamaat incident as “corona terrorism.”

Migrant workers sit in a bus outside a train terminus while waiting for their train during a nationwide lockdown to fight the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Mumbai on May 8. (AFP)
Migrant workers sit in a bus outside a train terminus while waiting for their train during a nationwide lockdown to fight the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Mumbai on May 8. (AFP)

African residents in China, especially students, have also faced harsh treatment related to the pandemic. Many say they have suffered forced evictions, arbitrary quarantines and mass coronavirus tests, as well as faced discrimination in restaurants and hotels.

"We saw images of Nigerians in the streets with their possessions and this was of course extremely distressing for us at home," Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said.

Guterres said migrants and refugees “have been vilified as a source of the virus — and then denied access to medical treatment.”

And while refugees are blamed for spreading the virus in some countries, elsewhere, they are facing increased abuse due to a sense of impunity during the crisis.

In Afghanistan, authorities are investigating the case of 55 Afghani migrants who were allegedly beaten and tortured by Iranian border officials before being forced into a river, where they are suspected to have drowned under the watch of the guards.

Sub-Saharan African residents in North Africa have also complained of economic hardship after the outbreak of COVID-19.  But there have been also initiatives in Morocco and Tunisia to help Sub-Saharan nationals who have found themselves unable to pay rent or continue earning an income.

Migrants sit on the side of a road as they wait for work, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during the holy month of Ramadan in Misrata, Libya May 2, 2020. (Reuters)
Migrants sit on the side of a road as they wait for work, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during the holy month of Ramadan in Misrata, Libya May 2, 2020. (Reuters)

Guterres called on political leaders to show solidarity with all people and for educational institutions to focus on “digital literacy” at a time when “extremists are seeking to prey on captive and potentially despairing audiences.”

He called on the media, especially social media, to “remove racist, misogynist and other harmful content,” on civil society to strengthen their outreach to vulnerable people and on religious figures to serve as “models of mutual respect.”

Last month in France, far-right group Identity Generation led a campaign against symbolic calls for prayers from mosque minarets. The calls for prayers were intended as expressions of solidarity with health workers and encouragement to Muslims communities, but far right leaders described them as "sound encroachment" and asked the Ministry of Interior to ban them.

The UN secretary-general stressed that COVID-19 “does not care who we are, where we live, what we believe or about any other distinction.”

His global appeal to address and counter COVID-19-related hate speech follows his April 23 message in which he called the coronarivus pandemic “a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.”

Guterres said then that the pandemic has seen “disproportionate effects on certain communities, the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining the health response.”

With “rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a push back against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic,” Guterres warned.

(AW staff with news agencies)