In times of austerity and economic crisis, the most vulnerable members of society are often scapegoated. Inflammatory and divisive rhetoric about issues such as migration is increasing, which can fuel tensions between communities.
Yet if you had asked a political commentator a year ago whether opposing racist statements would be part of the debate among politicians standing for election to the European Parliament, the answer would have been no. Apart from opening of borders to people from Bulgaria and Romania, race equality just wasn't on the political agenda. The media weren't talking about it. Fast forward to May 2014 and a different picture emerges. It is front page news when politicians are making racist statements (and being disciplined for them), and parties across the political spectrum are demonstrating their race equality credentials to appeal to voters.
How did we get there?
We take it for granted that we can eat an Indian takeaway, have neighbours and friends of a different ethnicity or nationality, enjoy a Danish television crime series, listen to hip hop or reggae, jump on a cheap flight to another country. 2.5 million Britons live in other EU countries and 2.3 million non-British Europeans live in the UK*. According to a study by Policy Exchange, there are 8 million people in the UK, some 14% of the population, from ethnic minorities, many of whom are second or third generations living here.
Together that constitutes a fair-sized group. One that traditionally was not so active, or even interested, in politics. A few racist comments on social media networks by politicians, although quickly erased and disciplinary action taken by their political parties, have galvanised the media and NGOs into action. The media are questioning politicians' statements, and campaigning organisations are mobilising voters to register and cast their votes in the upcoming elections. There was an anti-racism rally in Trafalgar Square in London on 22 March which saw 10,000 people attend. A good indication that many people do believe in an open society. As the organisers of that event said "The demonstrations were vibrant, positive, diverse and lively with a range of different communities including migrants from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, as well as Roma, Gypsy, Kurdish, Muslim, Christian and other faith communities. They joined trade unions, anti-racist, anti-fascists and social movements in a carnival of unity. The day was a magnificent display of our diversity, multi-culturalism and unity against racism and hatred." There are also some good examples of how, when given the opportunity on their own terms, young people express their voice and views on race equality and immigration. The OpenGeneration project is one such example.
International Alert's role
International Alert, one of the world's leading peacebuilding organisations, is bringing its nearly 30 years of experience to the discussion about racism and xenophobia. Alert believes that rhetoric and divisive narratives on a national level can be played out at a local level with expressions of prejudice towards specific groups. Through its eUnify project, International Alert is working with partners in Greece (Symbiosis), Italy (CESIE) and the Netherlands (Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers) to promote a balanced debate around migration and social marginalisation in the run up to the European Parliament elections, and to strengthen peaceful relations in Europe.
The campaign will touch on four themes which are common to the four countries: freedom of movement and its actual effects on societies and communities, including the benefits it can bring; celebrating diversity; the economic crisis and the way politics is made out of social problems, leading to scapegoating of marginalised communities; and the need for governments to address the underlying failure of democratic systems, states and institutions to engage some sections of society.
A small but important contribution to putting a vibrant discussion about racism and xenophobia back on the agenda.
* Sources: UK Census 2011 (for number of other EU citizens in the UK) and Migration Observatory at Oxford University (for number of British people in other EU countries).