By Jean-Pierre Gauci
On March 21 the world commemorates the International Day Against Racism. In Europe, the day is remembered through a number of activities including the launch by the European Network Against Racism of its annual Shadow Report on Racism across the European Union. I have had the honour and the pleasure of drafting this report for the last three years and this piece seeks to outline some of the trends which emerge from the report. The latest report covers the period between March 2010 and March 2011 and is based on 27 national reports written by grassroot organizations working on issues of equality and migration at the national level.
One key trend which emerges with prominence from the report and the national shadow reports is the disproportionate impact of the economic crisis on ethnic and religious minorities as well as on efforts to combat racism and discrimination in the European Union. The report notes how at a time of economic crisis, migrants and ethnic minorities more generally have suffered the greatest brunt of the crisis being more severely impacted by unemployment and lay offs. This, in part, reflects the fact that they tend to be more directly affected by precarious working conditions including temporary contracts as well as unequal working conditions. Moreover, discrimination is resulting in a situation were skills of persons of minority background are being sidelined, resulting in a situation where countries are not taking advantage of an important skill set within their own labour markets.
Another facet to the impact of the economic crisis is the cuts that have occurred to counter-racism efforts across the European Union. Many equality bodies and human rights institutions more broadly saw their budgets severely cut, in some cases undermining the possibility of adequately carrying out their work. This comes at a time when equality work is needed the most. In Lithuania, for instance, the national anti-discrimination programme for 2009-2011 received less than 1% of the funding which was initially planned for 2010.
Another key concern which is raised in the report is the lack of political will to take strategic and effective action to combat discrimination. This is reflected partly in political discourse, partly in the way funding is being managed and partly in contradictory legal and policy developments that prohibit discrimination in line with the EU directives but create situations of disadvantage of ethnic and religious minorities through other channels. In order to succeed, anti-racist efforts require the backing of the political sphere however the reality is that anti-racism and equality are not ‘politically sexy’.
Another key issue is the rise in far right politics in Europe, as well as the mainstreaming of far right ideologies. Potentially the clearest way of putting it is that discourse traditionally attributed to the far right is now finding its way to central parties and parties in governments. Statements which we have come to expect from Le Pen in France have become statements made by Sarkozy. This partly reflects the fact that in various coalition governments across the Union, far right parties have achieved a substantial amount of influence. The role of the Lega Nord in Berlusconi’s government in Italy, and of the Danish People’s Party in the Danish government are just two examples of this trend. In part, this reflects a situation where the boundaries of what is ‘acceptable’ political discourse have shifted further to the right and things which would have been considered unacceptable are now becoming mainstream and thereby accepted. A number of political leaders and parties have tended to borrow from far-right ideas and discourse in order to win some of the far right’s electorate. This development is also paralleled by the equally worrying and related increase in instances of racist violence and crime across the European Union.
Partly linked to this, and something which always shocks me, is reports from particular countries of how human rights defenders working in the field of anti-racism and migration have had their rights violated. A key example of this is the (frivolous) court cases instituted in Cyprus against the director of KISA – the leading anti-racist NGO in the country.
Also of concern is the lack of awareness of rights and remedies. The Race Directive and the Employment Equality Directive both provide for remedies in the case of discrimination and to a large degree these have all been transposed (to different levels of efficiency) in all the EU Member States. However, the number of cases remains critically low and this, unfortunately, does not reflect a low number of instances of discrimination but a combination of lack of awareness of relevant bodies and lack of trust that such bodies can be an effective way to seek redress for discrimination suffered.
2011 was set by the United Nations as the international year for persons of African descent. While estimates of the number of people of African descent are scant, the United States Congress suggested “an estimated 7,000,000 individuals of African descent currently live in and have long had a presence in Europe, forming an influential part of the African diaspora”. Status seems to be irrelevant when compared to the more directly visible characteristics of difference associated with these communities, which make them a target to stereotyping, prejudice, racism and discrimination. Legal status, however, may affect their access to certain rights as well as remedies in certain contexts. This places particular subsets of this group at a further disadvantage. At the launch of a day of discussions on discrimination faced by people of African descent, Anwar Kemal, Chair of the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, noted that throughout history, people of African descent had borne a disproportionate impact of racial discrimination through greater joblessness, physical insecurity, inadequate housing and healthcare, lower life-expectancy, and many other disadvantages. The reports drafted by NGOs across Europe indicate that this remains the reality.
The Shadow Report is available at: http://cms.horus.be/files/99935/MediaArchive/publications/shadow%20report%202010-11/shadowReport_EN_final%20LR.pdf
The Report on the Far Right in Europe is available at: http://cms.horus.be/files/99935/MediaArchive/publications/20060_Publication_Far_right_EN_LR.pdf
Note: The report was written by myself as part of the People for Change Foundation for and on behalf of the European Network Against Racism. Copyright on the report vests in ENAR.
 112th Congress, H.Res; Recognizing persons of African descent in Europe during the International Year for People of African Descent, 5 August 2011, www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=hr112-389