The European Union needs to do more to counter the increasing ‘demonisation' of Muslims and asylum-seekers, which has fuelled a wave of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments since 11 September, according to two new reports.
The studies, by the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia and UK-based Refugees Studies Centre, acknowledge a greater sense of public fear of minorities but strongly urge European politicians to avoid “pandering to prejudice”.
The EU Monitoring Centre cited evidence of rising attacks in every member state against symbols of Islam, such as mosques, and the harassment of Muslims, particularly women in hijabs (headscarves). Its chairman, Bob Purkis, said public anxiety in the wake of 11 September had been a major factor in the increased racist attacks: “A greater sense of fear among the general population has exacerbated already existing prejudices and fuelled acts of aggression and harassment across Europe,” he noted.
The group's report blamed sensationalist reporting in some sections of the media of extreme Islamic views and claimed that “mixed messages” from politicians on asylum seekers were fanning the flames. ”By demonising refugees and asylum seekers you legitimise racism and xenophobia,” Purkis added.
The report, which was compiled before the recent electoral successes of anti-immigration parties in France and the Netherlands, did however commend the efforts of the majority of EU politicians, community leaders and the media for helping to enhance inter-faith dialogue and tolerance. It said more practical initiatives to promote intercultural understanding were needed, however.
The Refugees Studies Centre report, on forced migration, sought to dispel the notion of ‘bogus' asylum seekers drawn to Europe by the allure of ‘generous' benefits. It found that the vast majority of asylum seekers were fleeing conflict or persecution. Of the leading 10 countries from which asylum seekers came to Europe, seven had experienced war in the decade up to 2000 and three had a history of repressing minorities.
The report's authors, Stephen Castles and Sean Loughna, suggest that tougher immigration measures, such as those currently being touted by Britain's Tony Blair and Spain's José María Aznar, would do little to stem the flow of asylum seekers. ”Preventing illegal immigration requires fundamental rethinking of our relationship with the developing world. Strident calls for tough action may serve to assuage popular fears stirred up by right-wing parties, but will do nothing to achieve long-term solutions,” the authors noted.
Instead, they recommended a programme to address the underlying issues of conflicts, oppression and poverty – that cause people to flee their homelands – through intervention, investment and action against human rights abuses.
The publication of the two reports comes against the backdrop of increasing discussion of the issues surrounding Islam and its impact on Western society – until recently a largely taboo subject for all but the far right. Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, this week called for greater dialogue and analysis of the relationship between Islamic teaching and “modernity”.
”What we need is a culture of tolerance,” he told diplomats in Berlin. The Green minister's views were echoed by his UK counterpart, Jack Straw, who said there was “a debate to be had”.
This article appeared in the 30 May 2002 issue of European Voice.