Speech at the Seminar on the fight against racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia

Racism and xenophobia against the background of the refugee crisis
Barcelona, Spain 25 July 2016
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Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to participate in this conference today. The fight against racism and xenophobia is one of the key areas of action for the Council of Europe. You have already heard some of my colleagues address you on different aspects of the work that we do in this field.

My role, as you know, does not have the fight against racism and xenophobia as its immediate focus. I was appointed by the Secretary-General in February to assist member states in dealing with the arrival of high numbers of refugees and migrants and to identify possible opportunities for more targeted action by the Council of Europe to support the states most affected. At the heart of my work is the concern to ensure that refugees and migrants in Europe, whether they have the right to stay in the host country or not, are treated with respect and in full compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and other relevant human rights standards of our Organisation. We already have the tools to enable us to deal humanely with migrant flows: the challenge now is to ensure that the rules are respected.

In my six months as the Secretary General’s special representative on migration and refugees, I have conducted fact-finding missions to Greece, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and Turkey. My first report on Greece and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” was published in May, and my Turkey report will be published shortly. Both reports contain a number of recommendations as to how the Council of Europe can help these states to confront the challenges that they face.

Much effort has, understandably, been focused on refugees’ immediate needs: accommodation, food, access to health and social services and access to asylum procedures. But once these immediate needs are met, other considerations come into play. Refugees must have access to professional opportunities, language-learning courses and family reunification. As the European Committee of Social Rights recently pointed out, these aspects – which are all rights secured by the European Social Charter – are essential to ensure the integration of the refugee population into the European societies that welcome them. This can often be the most challenging part. One of the issues to which I have drawn attention in my reports, and more widely, is the need for integration policies which have at their heart the fight against intolerance and discrimination. Even where good policies are in place, their implementation may be patchy. I have followed the disturbing increase in hate crimes and xenophobic behaviour directed against migrants and refugees with great concern. It is from this perspective that the fight against racism and xenophobia becomes a critical element of the work that I do.

Europe is currently dealing with the biggest refugee flow since the Second World War. Over a million migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean last year, and around 230,000 have done so this year so far. Three-quarters of the new arrivals come from the world’s top ten refugee producing countries. This means that a large majority of the new arrivals have well-founded asylum claims. Turkey, which has the largest refugee population in the world, is now host to over 3 million refugees, largely Syrians.

The numbers involved are, at first sight, alarming. But they should be seen in context. The Council of Europe covers a territory which has a population of around 800 million people. In terms of financial resources, the 2016 budget of the European Union amounts to € 155 billion. We have never been richer. Our capacity, as a continent, to welcome and integrate the arriving refugees cannot seriously be questioned. But we are not thinking, reacting or speaking as one continent. Instead, national interests have pushed out our sense of European solidarity as we seek to confront the challenges posed by the influx of refugees and migrants against the backdrop of terrorism, economic woes and a rise in nationalist populism.

Many European countries made an immediate effort to open their doors to the new arrivals. However, towards the end of 2015, as the flow of refugees and migrants making their way to Europe showed no signs of abating, opinions began to shift. The terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and the spate of sexual attacks in Germany over the New Year led to a hardening of attitudes. Newspapers have reported, with increasing frequency, xenophobic and racist attacks on refugees and migrants across Europe. Large anti-refugee rallies are no longer rare occurrences. Shelters for refugees have been set on fire. Extreme right-wing parties are enjoying an unprecedented level of success in the polls in a number of European countries, on the back of anti-migration rhetoric.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves today. The impact on refugees arriving in our countries seeking safety, and economic migrants in search of a better life, cannot be underestimated. Refugees who have witnessed atrocities in their home countries – or worse, who have themselves been the victims of horrific attacks – are subjected to verbal and physical abuse in ours. They feel threatened in the very countries that should be making them feel safe. Economic migrants – who in travelling abroad to seek better employment opportunities and living conditions have done nothing more than many of us would do – are treated as second-class human beings, abused simply for being “foreign”.  Children, young and impressionable, are exposed to hatred and intolerance which can leave scars that last a lifetime.

Much of the hostility towards migrants and refugees is directed at those who look different.  Unsurprisingly, against the backdrop of a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism often associated with it, Muslims have become a particular target. But xenophobia does not exclusively manifest itself on racist or religious lines. In the wake of the recent referendum of the UK’s membership of the European Union, there was a spike in hate crime, and many of the incidents concerned white eastern Europeans.

Hostility by local communities, but also at national level, towards refugees and migrants risks increasing the alienation that they already feel as newcomers to countries with unfamiliar cultures and languages. Poor integration may hinder engagement in educational opportunities, leading to thousands of children growing up without the skills and knowledge that will assist them to better their lot in life. This in turn restricts their employment prospects and condemns them to a life forever on the margins of society. In extreme cases, which are far more common than we would wish as we have unfortunately recently witnessed, it can lead to serious disaffection and leave them vulnerable to radicalisation by those who seek to exploit divisions in society.

Reports of racial hatred and xenophobia against migrants and refugees put most of us to shame. The compassionate stance taken by Angela Merkel was exactly the kind of leadership that was needed at a critical moment in the refugee debate. But Mrs Merkel’s immediate response was not widely replicated by other European leaders. Rather than guiding future action, it is looking increasingly untenable in the absence of support from her counterparts in other countries. Instead, we are seeing increasingly hard-line policies being adopted by governments across the continent. New border walls and fences are being constructed at European’s external and internal borders. Several countries have put in place measures to restrict access to welfare benefits and to family reunification, to impose waiting periods for applying for asylum and to detain asylum-seekers, including children. Some countries allow for the seizure of refugees’ assets to cover the cost of hosting them.

These repressive policies demonstrate a growing reluctance by most European governments to shoulder their share of responsibility for refugees fleeing war and conflict in their home countries. A relocation and resettlement scheme developed by the European Commission to enable a fairer distribution among EU Member States of refugees and asylum-seekers with apparently well-founded claims has produced poor results to date. While some States have made a number of places available, few have made concrete pledges in line with the extent of their obligations under the scheme.

The scaremongering language and rhetoric used by several politicians dehumanises refugees and migrants and stokes public fears. One EU leader referred to a “swarm” of migrants in Europe; he was rebuked by an opposition politician who reminded him that he was talking about people, and not insects. Another leader commented, “If we let the Muslims into the continent to compete with us, they will outnumber us”. Yet another warned that immigrants could spread “parasites and disease”. The Commissioner for Human Rights, in a recent memorandum on the rights of asylum-seekers and immigrants in the UK, emphasised the importance of the choice of language by political leaders to the perception of migrants by the national population.

To some extent, governments’ actions are driven by increased public intolerance for refugees and migrants and the rise in popularity of extremist political parties. Politicians mindful of the next elections are unwilling to jeopardise their chances of re-election and so pander to nationalist populism. However, in many cases the language used and the policies adopted are the expression of sincerely-held beliefs and the failure to speak out in defence of refugees and migrants is not a political calculation but a matter of personal conviction. But let us be clear: neither the one nor the other can provide justification for policies which fail to respect the rights of refugees to protection from persecution, to decent living conditions and to freedom from discrimination, racial hatred and xenophobia – the rules we have all agreed to.

By cracking down on refugees and immigrants, governments and politicians lend credibility to unfounded fears and legitimise xenophobic attitudes.

The increased willingness openly to express racist and xenophobic views which, several years ago, would have met with almost universal condemnation is perhaps one of the most worrying aspects of the present anti-refugee and migrant climate. Both in content and in tenor, these messages cross a line that it would have been unthinkable to cross only a few years ago.

The media bear much of the responsibility for this. The portrayal of refugees and migrants by many press publications, both online and in print, has generally sought to play on public fears and to sensationalise the debate. Reported “facts” are often misleading, and sometimes simply wrong. I have seen examples of languages and imagery that evoke comparisons with the 1930s and the rise of Nazi Germany. It is impossible not to feel uneasy and afraid about the direction which the debate is taking.

So what can we do to address the rise in xenophobic and hate-related incidents involving migrants and refugees?

First, we must take steps to raise public awareness of the importance of respecting pluralism in a democratic society and of the very real dangers posed by hate speech. We should be under no illusions as to where the proliferation and tolerance of hate speech can lead. Words can quickly become actions, and increased violence against migrants and refugees constitutes an attack on the very fabric of our societies and the hard-won principles, reflected in the Human Rights Convention, on which they are based. The Convention itself was drafted to prevent the repetition of the horrors of the Second World War and the events which led to it. We ignore it at our peril.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has recently called on Council of Europe member states to take action in this respect. In particular, it has identified the need to promote a better understanding of the need for diversity, to facilitate intercultural dialogue and to encourage public figures swiftly to condemn incidents of hate speech and to reinforce the values that it threatens. It has also recommended that education in diversity be introduced into the school curricula of the member states. This is key: prejudices often stem from exposure to prejudiced views in childhood. If we want to change the way societies perceive hate speech, we must educate the generation of tomorrow in tolerance and respect.

Second, we must work together to expose the myths peddled by unworthy politicians and the popular press, and to combat lazy stereotypes about refugees and economic migrants. While some of the arrivals in Europe are economic migrants seeking a better life, contrary to press reports the vast majority come from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria. They are fleeing war and persecution. Our politicians have an obligation under international law, derived from the most basic human principles, to offer these people asylum. They should not be afraid to stand up for these principles. We would all do well to remember that European refugees were the impetus for the 1951 Refugee Convention. Today we are fortunate enough to live in a continent where the values of democracy and human rights prevail, and we are no longer in need of international protection. We may not always be so lucky.

The admission of those from IS-held territories, for example, no doubt gives rise to some security concerns: the risk of terrorists posing as refugees is, unfortunately, a real one. However, it is worth noting that most of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks on European cities in the past fifteen years have been European nationals. ECRI has called on member states to ensure that the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement are respected in all cases, without discrimination on grounds of country of origin. This obligation is also enshrined in the case-law of the Court of Human Rights under Article 3 of the Convention. The response to terrorism concerns should be to improve vetting procedures and, in particular, the sharing of information on suspected terrorists across the European legal space, rather than closing the border to the millions of victims genuinely seeking asylum.

Fears of being forced to admit economic migrants intent on stealing jobs or welfare benefits are similarly unfounded. With the exception of migration within the EU for nationals of EU Member States, states are not obliged to grant economic migrants the right to stay. However, they do enjoy the right to fair and humane treatment pending their return. This should be uncontroversial. Some economic migrants may, in addition, be able to rely on their right to respect for private or family life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention on in order to challenge their exclusion. But contrary to misrepresentations in the media, the Court will not prevent the deportation of criminals on Article 8 grounds except in the most compelling of circumstances.

Third, we must tackle the way in which refugees and migrants are portrayed in the media. Press freedom, as guaranteed by Article 10 of the Convention, is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. But the protection afforded by Article 10 to journalists is subject to the proviso that they act in good faith in order to provide accurate and reliable information in accordance with the principles of responsible journalism. Where the media overstep these boundaries, they must be reminded of their duties and responsibilities. Freedom of the press should not be invoked as an excuse for the dissemination of racist and xenophobic views which incite racial hatred against migrants and refugees. The European Court, emphasising the vital importance of combating racial discrimination in all its forms and manifestations, has made it clear that restrictions on this kind of speech can be justified under the Convention. It is also noteworthy in this respect that Article 17 prevents the Convention being used in support of activities that seek to destroy the rights it contains. In some cases involving racist and xenophobic speech the Court has invoked Article 17 to preclude applicants from relying on the right to freedom of expression at all.

The Parliamentary Assembly has drawn attention to the image of refugees and migrants in the media on several occasions over the past twenty years. The Committee of Ministers responded by adopting recommendations on hate speech and on the media and the promotion of a culture of tolerance. ECRI has also emphasised the need to encourage debate within the media on the image that they convey of minority groups in connection with the fight against terrorism, and the responsibility of the media to avoid spreading biased information. But it is clear that more has to be done. National authorities must be rigorous in applying and enforcing the Council of Europe standards in this field. They must impose appropriate sanctions on publications that fail to comply with their responsibilities.

Fourth, we must ensure that racist and xenophobic crime is properly identified, investigated and prosecuted. ECRI has provided guidance as to which intentional acts should be criminalised. The list includes public incitement to violence, hatred or discrimination, public insults and threats, where these acts are directed against a person on grounds of national origin. Offences should be clearly defined, and applicable penalties should take into account the serious consequences of hate speech as well as the need for a proportionate response. The Human Rights Convention imposes an obligation on States to investigate any violent incidents that result in loss of life or serious injury. The Court has made it clear that in the course of such an investigation the police must take all reasonable steps to unmask any racist motive and to establish whether ethnic hatred or prejudice may have played a role. Politicians at the highest level must deliver the message that turning a blind eye to racist and xenophobic offending will not be tolerated; police management should ensure that this message is given effect at operational level. Training of officers to sensitivise them to potential racist or xenophobic motives and to make them aware of the standards of investigation expected should be given as a matter of course.

In all of this, judges and prosecutors can play an important role by ensuring that human rights principles are properly applied in the context of criminal investigations and proceedings in the national courts. The courses offered by Council of Europe’s HELP Programme can help by providing comprehensive and focused training on the relevant Council of Europe standards on anti-discrimination, asylum, and hate crime and hate speech.

Finally, we – the international community and national governments – must work harder to put in place effective and coordinated migration policies. There must be a fair distribution of refugees and asylum-seekers across Europe to ensure that claims are dealt with justly and swiftly and that the costs of assisting those in need are shared. Procedures for dealing with asylum claims should be based on international human-rights standards and should harmonised as far as possible to increase public confidence in their effectiveness and to enhance mutual trust between States. We must put in place effective social-inclusion policies to facilitate refugees’ access to the labour market, language-learning opportunities and education more broadly. Finally, we must ensure that the fight against racism and xenophobia guides our decisions in this area. The only alternative – to close our border to refugees and leave them to fend for themselves – harks back to dark times in Europe, when the rise of hatred and xenophobia led to years of war and the deaths, in horrific circumstances, of millions of people. The shame of our inaction then still blots the European conscience today. Surely we have not forgotten the lessons of the past so quickly?

There is no overnight solution to this problem. But we need to start tackling it now. If we do not, xenophobic attitudes towards migrants and refugees will become so widespread and so engrained that they will be difficult, if not impossible, to change.

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