Jozef De Witte, Director of the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (Belgium)

6 July 2009

1. What are the main activities of the Belgian Centre of Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism?

The centre is a public service at national level, taking care of everything that has to do with diversity except for gender and language related issues.

The centre has three main tasks. Firstly, the prevention of discrimination through courses and advice. Among others, we provide courses for police officers, HR departments of companies and the real estate sector.

Secondly, we also react to discrimination offences by responding to every report of discrimination and looking for a solution. Preferably, we come to this solution through mediation but in the worst case we take the complaint to the court. Finally, the centre draws up recommendations and advice for the government.

2. How do you assess the level of discrimination in Belgium?

There's quite a lot of racism in Belgium. The number of reported discrimination offences is proof of this. Every year we get around 1,000 to 1,500 reports on racist discrimination. Research on racist issues in Belgium shows a rather depressing result as well. And as to representation of ethnic minorities on the workfloor, Belgium is the worst in Europe. Nowhere in Europe are there so few people with minority backgrounds in the workforce as in Belgium.

3. How would you assess the acceptance of cultural diversity in Belgium?

There's still a lot of work to do, particularly in Flanders – the Dutch-speaking region. We were confronted with diversity only very late here, leading to the main opinion on this issue being ''adopt our habits or get out of here.'' This bias was found in the recruiting strategy of the Belgian police. Those who proved to be closest to the average on most issues, were most likely to be hired…not exactly a celebration of diversity.

4. In your view, how can the Belgian government best fight discrimination?

To start with, there should be a strong legal framework. In the meantime, Belgium has developed several strong laws and there are a lot of good initiatives but these laws still need to be known. One example is a recent legal case in which the judge in the court was not aware of the existence of the renewed anti-discrimination law of 2007. This should change. The main task of the government is to set clear boundaries - ''this is discrimination and it is unacceptable.'' A lot of people still think they can get away with discrimination. Also victims of discrimination should be aware of their rights so they can stand up for them.

5. How have cultural organisations and political groups responded to the challenges posed by discrimination?

Cultural organisations have responded by making anti-discrimination a theme and by mainstreaming it into the whole organisation. The political groups however show a very different picture. Some speak out very strongly against discrimination and are promoting diversity whilst other groups try to get strong support through addressing feelings of fear and– publicly or hidden – using racist language.

6. What is the role of the media in matters relating to diversity in Belgium?

It is obvious that the media play an important role. There are three main things journalists can pay attention to. First of all, they can ask themselves the question why it would be relevant to mention the background or nationality of the people they report about. Secondly they can try to make sure that the guests they invite for TV or radio programmes, or the actors that play in TV-series, echo a good representation of society. And finally they can adopt a conscious strategy of hiring people, looking at diversity and avoiding that people from ethnic minority backgrounds only work on integration issues.

7. How can the Council of Europe's 'Speak Out Against Discrimination' campaign help in the fight against racism in Europe?

Raising awareness is a big issue and it will always be one because the fight for more respect for diversity and against discrimination is never completely - nor for eternity - won. We must keep stressing the fact that Europe has always been a diverse continent and that exactly that diversity has made it into what it is now.

8. What challenges and obstacles lie ahead in the fight against discrimination in Europe?

The EU already has a legal framework that goes in the right direction. Now these laws need to be put into practice, both in the EU member states as in all other European countries. The non-EU-member states of the Council of Europe can take full inspiration out of the EU laws. Finally employment, housing and education remain the main issues which need action in order to fight discrimination.

9. Looking to the future, what are the prospects for improved community relations in Belgium?

Research shows very clearly that adolescents are more open to diversity and no longer judge a person on the basis of colour, background or nationality. This gives hope for the future. On the other hand the financial crisis is a heavy burden. When talking about employees with ethnic-minority backgrounds, we often come across the LIFO-principle – Last in First Out. This means that people from minorities only get hired when there are no 'natives' available, and that by consequence they are also the first to get fired in a crisis.


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