A racism emergency

Recent events on the Greek-Turkish border have demonstrated that much remains to be done in the fight against racism in Europe; deep and farreaching measures are urgently required, says Julie Pascoët.
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By Julie Pascoët

20 Mar 2020

We have a racism emergency in Europe. Recently, we have witnessed far-right terrorism in Germany, the EU pandering to racist narratives in its response to asylum seekers arriving at the Greek-Turkish border and the ensuing suspension of the right to asylum in Greece.

These are only the cases that made the front pages. But racialised people across Europe experience discrimination in employment and education, racial profiling and police brutality on a daily basis. Reversing this requires deep and far-reaching measures.

On 21 March, there will be many declarations to mark International Day Against Racism and celebrate Europe’s diversity.


This is important, but if governments stop at empty words then racialised people in Europe will continue to experience violence, injustice and inequality.

We need a commitment and strong actions to ensure that racialised people feel safe and are able to live, grow and thrive.

There are already laws in place in EU countries to protect people from racial discrimination and sanction racist crimes. These were important breakthroughs at the time of their adoption; but they also have limits; what is lacking is a comprehensive strategy.

“Racialised people across Europe experience discrimination in employment and education, racial profiling and police brutality on a daily basis”

The focus of existing laws is on individual aspects of racism; they fail to address structural and institutional dimensions, such as racial profiling, lack of protection of undocumented migrants, discrimination of Muslim women, etc.

Anti-racism organisations also note that existing legislation is not properly implemented for a number of reasons, including lack of awareness of the legislation; underreporting of racist incidents; bias and prejudices in the judiciary; and the difficulty, cost and mental burden of bringing cases to court.

Governments can play a central role in ensuring a holistic, structural and intersectional approach to eradicating racial inequality.

Adopting and implementing a national action plan against racism could help, while clear and targeted public policies that complement the legal framework would enable states to tackle more structural forms of racism – from employment, to housing, to the criminal justice system.

Such a plan could be an important tool in developing a comprehensive framework that puts racialised people at the centre of anti-racism policies and takes a real intersectional approach.

This would address entrenched, structural inequalities. It would also send a powerful message to society that governments are proactively fighting racism – going beyond legislation that simply tries to address the consequences of individual racism, therefore contributing to a shift in public attitudes.

A national action plan against racism should include certain elements to make it work. In terms of content, this requires a sophisticated understanding of racism that recognises structural, institutional and historic discrimination and takes an intersectional approach.

The plan should also include targeted measures to combat specific forms of racism.

It should have clear objectives, with measurable indicators of progress and a broad scope, which includes education, housing, health, the criminal justice system and takes into account intersections of oppressions, such as sexism, homophobia, ableism and classism.

“Governments can play a central role in ensuring a holistic, structural and intersectional approach to eradicating racial inequality”

Different kinds of measures should be foreseen, such as awareness-raising and positive action, including in institutions, knowledge production, assessment of legislation as well as official recognition of past and current oppressions.

The process is just as important as the content. The leadership should come from governments, but a national action plan against racism can only be achieved if civil society organisations and representatives of racialised communities are involved from design to implementation.

Involving local authorities and municipalities is also key to its success.

There should be sufficient funds and resources allocated to develop and implement the plan. Indeed, some EU states are paving the way and taking steps to adopt action plans against racism, following broad mobilisation from anti-racism organisations and activists.

In Belgium, there has been progress in adopting a plan at federal and regional levels. In Portugal, there is now a special commission against racism, which should begin work on an action plan in cooperation with civil society organisations.

The Finnish government has also pledged to adopt a plan in its government declaration.

Other countries need to follow suit; for those countries that already have similar plans such as the Netherlands and Germany, these should be assessed in partnership with civil society to ensure they are reaching their objectives and properly implemented.

EU institutions also have a key role to play in encouraging Member States to adopt national action plans against racism.

They can champion this as a tool for fighting structural racism by publishing EU-wide standards for effective national action plans against racism.

This would be a major outcome, 20 years after the adoption of the EU equality directives and 19 years after the UN Durban Declaration calling on States to adopt such plans.


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