It is a problem many people face on a daily basis: being judged, badly treated, or even worse, just because of the colour of their skin. There are laws against racism and xenophobia, but changing attitudes is not so easy.
Campaigners say it is not enough to have laws, they must be enforced, and authorities must publicly renounce all abuses.
One place shocked into action was the Belgian port city of Antwerp, known for its diamond industry and home to large ethnic communities.
A teenage far-right sympathiser was jailed for murder with racist intent after a shooting rampage here in 2006. A pregnant woman from Mali and a two-year-old girl she was looking after were killed, and a Turkish woman was seriously wounded.
People took to the streets to condemn racism and the rise of the far-right. But despite the soul-searching, some say little progress has been made since.
Recently anti-discrimination complaints were made to the authorities in a controversy over police policy, including checks on the drivers of expensive vehicles. Mohamed Benhaddou, who is of Moroccan descent, is one of the complainants.
He told Euronews: “As citizens, especially as citizens of migrant descent, we should demand nothing less than our full rights, and try to really break into the debate and have a voice there, and really just point out the urgency of it. Because racism, to some who haven’t been discriminated against, it may be a bit abstract, but I can assure you that for a lot of people it really changes lives.”
Mohamed says without what he calls a Marshall Plan, he is not optimistic things will change anytime soon.
He says there is complacent acceptance of the fact that ethnic minorities are discriminated against when it comes to housing, education and employment.
Action groups say raising public awareness is crucial, but also victims should not let racism go unchallenged.
Omar Ba from the Platform of African Communities in Antwerp said: “Speak up about the problems, even if there is no immediate solution; it helps to assess what’s going on. And measuring what’s going on, that helps us work out the scale of the phenomenon, and that means wage a battle against it.
“And I think it’s the responsibility of the authorities, and politicians of all persuasions in Europe, to meet their responsibilities and help us carry out this work. Because it’s not only a job for the civil society; it’s a job we should do together.”
Other campaigners say the challenge is how to harness the public outrage over extreme cases of racism and use that to foster change in the general, day-to-day attitudes towards ethnic communities.
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney reported: “Many here in Antwerp have made their feelings known. Tens of thousands of signs like this one have gone up across the city; they say ‘street without racism’ and ‘street without hate’.”
Many local schools have also declared themselves racism free zones.
The pressure is on governments everywhere to adhere to European rules on racism and xenophobia. EU officials are currently assessing compliance in all member states.
And, in these tough economic times, one particular concern is how to tackle the rise of hate speech, with fears it is fueling racism and extremist behaviour.
Mohamed Benhaddou said: “When I look back at the 90s you had a racist discourse which was quite easy to notice, because it had racialised arguments. It was about the blacks, about the Arabs. But nowadays it has become much more culturalised, so people are saying ‘I don’t have anything against Arabs or blacks, but it’s just their culture’.
“And (they think) that, in some ways, is more acceptable. It’s like you’re just doing some critique of culture, which actually it isn’t, because in essence it leads to the same thing, the same outcome, which is the exclusion of people.”
Omar Ba said: “Brutal and basic racism, as well as aggression, does not really come up a lot. Of course there are isolated cases, but it’s not the real trend. There’s a problem with what I call institutional racism.
“When there is a problem in society, I think the state must act. It must act in the television studios, when there is a discourse that calls for stigmatisation, or a certain kind of segregation whatever the form, or a certain perception of others.”
A survey of Europeans last year found that discrimination is still considered to be widespread, with the majority saying it is mostly on the grounds of ethnic origin.
It is a long battle, but campaigners say they must hold on to the hope that little by little things can improve.
Wires > European Affairs
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