< Viewpoints < 2006

"Xenophobia: a shameful face of Europe"

[18/12/06] Xenophobia is a serious problem in all parts of Europe today. Extreme right-wing parties promoting hatred against migrants and minorities are represented in several national parliaments. In some countries, they also influence government policies. Unfortunately, some other political parties have redefined themselves in order not to be outflanked by the extremists – with the effect that xenophobic positions have become rather “mainstream”. The result is continued discrimination, inter-communal tensions and segregation.

One concrete problem is the continued discrimination in the housing market against immigrants, asylum seekers and minorities. In particular, Roma families are disadvantaged, says the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in its recent annual report. Adverts explicitly rejecting “foreigners” are still being published in newspapers in some countries.

Furthermore, the EUMC reports on segregation in schools which has hit Roma children in particular. Unemployment rates for immigrants and minorities are significantly higher than for the majority population in EU member states.

Other reports describe a widespread tendency of intolerance against Muslims which has become worse since 11 September 2001. Muslims and persons from the Middle East and South Asia have faced unfair treatment because of their religion or looks.

A poster connecting Muslims in Britain with terrorism and the attack on the Twin Towers in New York appeared in a case before the European Court of Human Rights. The Court was very clear in its decision:

“Such a general, vehement attack against a religious group, linking the group as a whole with a grave act of terrorism, is incompatible with the values proclaimed and guaranteed by the Convention, notably tolerance, social peace and non-discrimination.”

While patterns of xenophobia and intolerance continue, there are also reports about more violent hate crimes against migrants and minorities. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) recently presented an overview of hate-motivated violent incidents in OSCE countries during the first half of 2006. They included crimes related to racism, anti-Semitism, antiziganism, Islamophobia and homophobia.

Black Africans have been stabbed or beaten to death; Roma groups targeted in mob violence; Jews physically attacked; synagogues and cemeteries vandalised. Muslims have been assaulted, and their mosques and Islamic schools damaged. Gay demonstrators and persons with disabilities have also been targets of hate crimes and violent attacks.

The precise scope of hate criminality in Europe today is difficult to assess as most governments still have not introduced an efficient system of collecting and organising data in this field. Also, we can assume that a great number of offences are never reported to the police. However, available data suggest that hate crimes continue to be alarmingly widespread – and this must be addressed.

Physical attacks on individuals from minority groups are often perpetrated in communities where extremists have spread hate propaganda. I have personally seen examples of how minor incidents in such atmospheres can ignite mob tendencies against, for instance, Roma communities.

These are situations in which politicians and other opinion leaders must stand up and defend democratic values and human rights for everyone. We have seen too little of such principled, courageous positions in recent times. This is a great shame.

Governments in Europe have not done enough.

However, it should also be recognised that there have been attempts in several countries to curtail intolerance and hate crimes through legislation, police work and awareness programmes. Together the majority of governments have also given xenophobia a considerable priority in pan-European organisations. The Council of Europe campaign “All different – all equal” is an important example.

The Council’s Commission against racism and intolerance (ECRI) is effectively monitoring the situation on a country-by-country and continuous basis. The Commission also adopts general policy recommendations, disseminates examples of “good practice” and collects data on legal measures in member states to combat racism and intolerance.

A summary of the generic recommendations from the Council of Europe, ODIHR and the EUMC indicate that further action is needed:

• There is a “data deficit” on both patterns of discrimination and hate crimes. A better system of data collection is needed in many countries, which should include methods to analyse the frequency and type of abuse.

• There is a need to strengthen the legislation as such. Racist motives should be seen as an aggravating factor in prosecuting hate crimes.

• The prevention of hate crimes and acting upon them must be made a priority in police work on both the local and national level. Any tendency to racism in the police force must be stopped.

• The media have a responsibility in this field. While respecting the freedom of the press, journalists and editors should be encouraged to abstain from negative stereotyping and do more to promote rights-based values.

• Interreligious dialogue should be further promoted in order to counter ignorance and promote ethical values which are common between major faiths. Hopefully, such a dialogue will also encourage moderate religious leaders to tackle the problem of fanatical extremism within their own folds.

• Non-governmental organisations can make a real difference. A vibrant civil society could provide a “vaccination” against xenophobia. Such voluntary groups, which offer youngsters an alternative to extremism, should be supported.

• Schools must be equipped to handle xenophobic tendencies among pupils and to provide effective knowledge to promote tolerance and respect for those who are different. Efforts to “invest” in the future should be stronger and more efficient.

Thomas Hammarberg


European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)
EUMC Annual Report 2006: Racism and Xenophobia in the EU Member States
OSCE/ODIHR report on "Challenges and responses to hate-motivated incidents in the OSCE region", October 2006


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