Eva Smith-Asmussen, President of the European Commission Against Racism And Intolerance - 16 April 2009

For the past 30 years, Eva Smith-Asmussen has dedicated her life to the fight against discrimination.

She began by challenging social injustice in Denmark. Now, as the current president of the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), she works with governments to ensure fair treatment for all.

''I always wanted to help society to be more just,'' said the Copenhagen University law professor. ''When I started it was more a matter of social discrimination. There were very few black people in Denmark . It was not until later that immigrants started coming and people began turning against them.

''I don't want my grandchildren growing up in a society where their mates are discriminated against for no other reason than their skin colour or religion.''

Ms Smith-Asmussen's work at ECRI focuses on encouragiong the Council of Europe's 47 member states to strengthen legislation and close loop holes to boost the fight against racism, xenophobia and intolerance.

As she recognises, the scale of the social and political worries now confronting Europe have created the most difficult conditions yet in ECRI's 16 year history for the effective communication of a positive message of dialogue, openness and tolerance.

''We are worried how the economic crisis might influence the climate in Europe towards minority groups, especially when it comes to migration and employment,'' she revealed. ''You can hear it already. People are saying ‘Send them home. We don't need them anymore.

''We are worried that this will heighten tension towards minority groups and people who are foreigners, or are seen as foreigners.''

The global recession thus joins unemployment, fear of Islam, international terrorism, the right-wing backlash and a general distrust of the 'nanny state's rights culture,' as a threat to the political consensus built up over recent years concerning the benefits of migration and the value of diversity.

''People were just beginning to understand that the population is getting old and that we need foreigners to come and work in Europe to keep up our high level of social welfare,'' said Ms Smith-Asmussen. ''Now, all of a sudden, people are losing their jobs and things are looking worse.

''The economic crisis tightens people around themselves. People are getting more scared and more nationalistic. Maybe the right wing will have an upturn.”

As Ms Smith-Asmussen freely admits, it is the job of campaign groups and organisations like ECRI to define a clear message which underpins inter-cultural dialogue and faces down the fear-mongers.

''I don't think the problem can be solved only through legal means,'' she revealed. ''There has to be some awareness-raising. People have to understand why discrimination is so blatantly unfair. It's obvious that we have to talk to people in a different way.''

ECRI's task might be easier if some European governments stopped signaling their own distrust of the 'multi-cultural contract,' versions of which have provided the central framework for the relationship between majority and minorities in Europe for a generation.

''Multi-culturalism is here,'' said Ms Smith-Asmussen. ''We are living together. People are inter-marrying.''

Challenging this drift away from multiculturalism has forced Ms Smith-Asmussen to seek out unusual allies in unlikely places. In her advocacy, she now quotes the advice of the security services in Denmark and the United Kingdom highlighting the dangers of youth alienation and the subsequent risk of political extremism.

In addition to the Danish Politiets Efterretningstjeneste and the UK 's MI5, Ms Smith-Asmussen would also like to enlist the general support of the media in breaking down the barriers of intolerance.

''It's a pity that the media do not have human interest stories about the families which come to Denmark, find their way and succeed,'' she said. ''All you hear is that there are a disproportionate number of immigrants among the criminal population. Newspapers always want the stories which are bad and sad but you could make other great stories.

''People go to Europe because they want a better future for their kids just the same way the Danes went to the United States 100 years ago to make a better future for themselves. That, we think is commendable. It's a success story. Why then is it so terrible for people to want to come here?''

Despite the pressures of the ECRI presidency and yes, the hate mail from her most vitriolic critics, Ms Smith-Asmussen remains optimistic about Europe 's multi-cultural future.

''I hope very much for the next generation,'' she added. ''They go to school with people of different colours and faiths and they are very relaxed about it. Friendships have nothing to do with headscarves or colour. They have to do with the person. They look at the person not at the colour, faith or language.''


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