Working to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples

Minority Rights Group International campaigns worldwide with around 130 partners in over 60 countries to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, can make their voices heard.

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24 min read


The history of Europe’s black population stretches back for centuries, driven by the involvement of many European countries in the slave trade and more recently by migration. This includes, post-Second World War, the flow of workers from various parts of the African continent to Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere, driven in part by former colonial ties between sending and receiving countries. More recently, some Africans primarily seeking employment have been drawn for various reasons to Ireland, Greece, Italy and Spain, with the latter two countries in particular viewed as gateways into Europe. Besides labour migration, there has also been a significant influx of refugees from conflict in Africa seeking political asylum, especially in Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. African students have also been attracted by educational opportunities to travel to countries in Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia , Poland, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

Nevertheless, only around half of the countries in Europe have a significant black population at present, and the actual make-up of the African cultures present in each mirrors their colonial past in Africa and the Americas, or in other cases their receptivity to refugees from social, economic and political turmoil in those regions. The growth of Europe’s African population, especially in recent decades, has produced a negative reaction in some quarters, associated in large part with the rise of xenophobic and nationalistic right-wing politics. That reaction in turn is producing a group identity among many Afro-descendant Europeans, largely arising from a shared experience of discrimination.

At the same time, the choice of a precise self-identification among them is becoming increasingly contested, with the appearance of alternatives such as Afro-European, Afropean, and black, though most still prefer to identify either with the name of the native culture of their country of origin or that of the European society in which they live, even in the face of discriminatory treatment. Meanwhile, the mainstream discourse within Europe ranges from ‘colour blindness’ in countries such as France, Germany, Portugal and Spain, where social issues and inequality are presented largely as matters of class and geography; to varying degrees of commitment to multiculturalism, as in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom; to an emphasis primarily on civil rights and non-discrimination elsewhere. Not only more recent immigrants, but also earlier residents of African origin, whose families have been present for generations, are now finding themselves both voluntarily and involuntarily redefined. The terms of this discourse are complicated all across Europe by a reluctance to employ concepts concerning race and ethnicity in the lingering wake of the Holocaust. This makes it difficult to formulate generalizations about the number, official status and living conditions of black people in the absence of related data, thus often rendering the black population invisible to the public.

Estimates of the black population in Europe are inherently imprecise, in fact, not only due to varying categorizations of black identity and the deliberate rejection of any such categories by many governments, but also due to the presence of uncountable illegal immigrants. Consequently, there are credible estimates for the total population ranging from more than 7 million to as many as 15 million,[i] depending upon the definition of ‘Afro-descendant’ followed and the sources used. While the lower estimate is closely based on census data and, for ease of identification, restricted to those of sub-Saharan origin, others that include blacks from North Africa and take into account estimates by NGOs and independent research reach much higher figures. A modest estimate for the countries in Western Europe with the largest population, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, finds Germany – with a total population of over 80 million – having only around 270,000 residents of sub-Saharan origin,[ii] which can be explained by various historical and geographical factors. France, by contrast, has a black population of about 3 million (though estimates vary considerably) out of a total of 66 million,[iii] and the UK has as many as 1.8 million in its total population of 63 million.[iv] Other countries with a measurable black population now include Ireland in the extreme north-west, where it has risen to around 60,000;[v] the Netherlands, where it is around half a million;[vi] Scandinavia, where the numbers are relatively small but related problems of discrimination and ethnic division are still surfacing; Russia, with tens of thousands of African students who trained there under the Soviet regime; as well as Italy and Spain, both countries on the Mediterranean with growing migrant populations as well as established communities of African origin. While the percentage of the European population of black African descent is admittedly still under 2 per cent, the social construct of ‘blackness’ as a description is becoming ever more common.

The black populations in European societies, while in many cases seeking integration or assimilation, are at the same time formulating a strong sense of shared identity. This has resulted in growing black consciousness and organization along ethnic, religious, professional and political lines, producing associational structures now numbering in the hundreds in Europe, with many having their own periodicals and websites. As growing numbers of immigrants gain citizenship they are becoming recognized as potentially significant voting blocs. It is also noteworthy that the new millennium has witnessed a growing black presence among elected officials, even in countries where the actual black population is relatively scarce. The most prominent examples in the countries with the largest black populations are Lady Valerie Amos, who served as leader of the British House of Lords from 2003 to 2007, and Christiane Taubira, serving as French Minister of Justice from 2012 to the present. Notable in countries with a small black population are the election in Russia of Jean Gregoire Sagbo to the City Council of Novozavidovo, a village 60 miles north of Moscow, in July 2010; the election in June 2012 of John Eret, the first black mayor in German history, in the village of Mauer, near Heidelberg; and the election of the first black members of the German parliament: Karamba Diaby, a chemist originally from Senegal and Charles Huber, an actor born in Munich to a Senegalese father and German mother in September 2013. An even more remarkable electoral breakthrough in Eastern Europe was the election of two Africans to the Polish Parliament in 2010 and 2011: John Abraham Godson, originally from Nigeria; and Killion Munyama, originally from Zambia.

Nevertheless, it is also important to remember that, notwithstanding such striking examples of progress, a pervasive negative climate towards black communities persists across Europe. The most dramatic evidence of this in the political sphere is the experience of Cecile Kyenge, an immigrant from Congo to Italy, who became the first black cabinet minister there when appointed Minister of Integration in 2013. After her election, however, she was exposed on a number of occasions to public incidents of abuse and intimidation, such as having bananas thrown at her at a political rally and being publicly compared to an ape by one conservative senator. The most alarming recent related development in European electoral politics is the success of ultra-rightist, xenophobic parties in many countries, best illustrated by the French National Front of Marine Le Pen winning 25 per cent of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections.

Moreover, acts such as public racist insults have not been confined to the political arena, since abusive chants have been conspicuous in soccer stadiums from Iberia to Siberia for decades, and continue despite efforts by the governing sports agencies to stop this. In fact the single most challenging feature of the lives of black people in Europe is a constant confrontation with racist bias that affects almost every facet of daily life, including employment, access to education, health care and personal safety. Nowhere does this result from legal segregation, yet there are visible clusters of immigrant communities on the edges of major cities, as in the case of Paris or Lisbon, and in poorer sections of other cities. The work options for immigrants in general are concentrated in menial jobs and those that the native populations typically avoid. In the case of black people, even those who are highly educated often work in positions for which they are overqualified. Black people also experience an unemployment rate that is considerably higher than that of white people.

At the same time, across Europe there is a widespread reluctance to acknowledge or recognize the true extent of racism towards its black population. A graphic example of this can be seen in the media coverage in 2014 of growing protests against the annual celebrations of the Black Pete figure in the Dutch Saint Nicholas tradition. Despite their general admission that this figure, since the mid-nineteenth century, has borrowed heavily from popular blackface minstrel and Sambo stereotypes, a large proportion of the Dutch public regard it as a harmless custom without recognizing its strong roots in historic prejudice towards Africans. In France, similarly, the stated commitment to social egalitarianism has often meant that ethnic discrimination have not received sufficient attention from policy-makers. Such an attitude prevents close examination of what might be the underlying causes of the societal alienation that has driven periodic violent outbursts from disaffected black and Muslim youths in and around Paris. Common patterns of discrimination based on colour and ethnicity are in fact evident in all European societies with a significant black population, though usually also engendering formal initiatives and demonstrations against such practices. Russia and Eastern Europe, however, stand out as exceptions. Although these are the regions with the smallest black populations, racist animosity is particularly intense, and attracts few official denunciations. Because of the level of skinhead, neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist activity in many of these countries, it is dangerous, especially for black males, even to go out in public alone.

More positively, however, collaborative initiatives are now under way by various national and global organizations to advance equal rights and end discrimination. European Parliament members have met periodically for a Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference to discuss viable transatlantic policies to combat discrimination and advance inclusion, including a joint agreement between the European Union and United States, in recognition of the global nature of these issues. Many of these initiatives are supported by the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. At a local and national level, these have been accompanied by a wide range of anti-racism initiatives and declarations of solidarity that have contributed to a more inclusive understanding of citizenship. The future of African communities in Europe will depend in part on efforts such as these to counter the deep-seated legacy of discrimination towards Africans.

Jerry Afriyie, spokesperson and NLWB founder.

Jerry Afriyie, spokesperson and NLWB founder.

The Netherlands: Black Pete – a Christmas custom or cultural racism?

Katerina Avina

Every year in the Netherlands, Christmas is preceded by the arrival of Zwarte Piet, ‘Black Pete’, a popular figure dating back to the nineteenth century. Based on a well-known children’s book about a saint and his black servants, Black Pete has for generations been a central feature of celebrations in the weeks preceding the feast of Saint Nicholas on 5 December. As part of the festivities, white Dutch participants parade through the streets wearing blackface, rouge and dark frizzy wigs – a clear caricature of an African man, rooted in historic stereotypes. But while it is widely regarded as a harmless tradition, for the majority of Holland’s black population it is a painful reminder of a recent colonial history where Africans were dehumanized and enslaved.

In recent decades, however, protests against Black Pete have increased, led in part by Holland’s African population. In the 1980s, for instance, Surinamese migrants launched the campaign ‘White Claus and Black Pete? This is no party!’ and set up the action committee, ‘Black Pete = black grief’. More recently, two famous black Dutch artists, Quinsy Gario and Kno’ledge Cesare (Jerry Afriyie), protested through an art project to attract people´s attention to the issues of racism and intolerance associated with the image of Black Pete. After distributing t-shirts with the slogan ‘Black Pete is racism’, they were subsequently arrested by local police officers.

Since then, other organizations have been advocating for authorities to reconsider the practice. Among these is the ‘Black Pete Is Racism’ campaign, led by the civil society collective Nederland Wordt Beter (NLWB). By disseminating information and news stories through social media and other means, NLWB is attempting to challenge popular attitudes to this outdated tradition. MRG spoke with Jerry Afriyie, spokesperson and NLWB founder, about their organization’s efforts to raise awareness about racism in the Netherlands today.

MRG: What important concerns does the Black Pete bring up in the Dutch society? 

JA: Dutch children are brought up to believe Zwarte Piet is a harmless tradition, but Zwarte Piet is more than that. Zwarte Piet degrades people of African descent. With whites being the master and blacks being the servant, the tradition tells our children blacks are inferior to white people. I think that people who say that Zwarte Piet is harmless lack empathy and knowledge of Dutch slave history. If you know the racist history of the Netherlands and how blacks were degraded throughout the centuries – even to this day, you will know Zwarte Piet is not harmless. The connotations cannot be denied.

MRG: What is your campaign hoping to achieve, and in what ways do you raise awareness?

JA: Our campaign ‘Zwarte Piet Is Racism’ started in July 2011 as a community awareness campaign to highlight the racist element of Zwarte Piet. We grew up with the Sint Nicolaas tradition and, as blacks in the Netherlands, we experienced the racist element as an assault on our human rights. We believe that in our current society, in the twenty-first century, it is time to get rid of racial stereotypes and make Sint Nicolaas a joyful celebration for everyone, not just the majority. We are trying to achieve our goal through lectures, debates, social gatherings, protests and talks with opposition groups and organizations as well as the Dutch government.

Where for decades you couldn’t talk publicly about the racist element in the tradition, more and more people are expressing their opinion freely today. Even Dutch celebrities are feeling safe enough to take a stand against Zwarte Piet. Most support comes from young people: black people, white people, Muslims, LGBT – young people from every corner of the Dutch society. The whole world is following what is going on here. Recently there have been protests against Dutch racism in France, Germany, Portugal, the UK and more countries. I think a growing number of people have become aware that we need a change, and that Zwarte Piet can no longer persist. Sint Nicolas was celebrated for centuries without the figure of Zwarte Piet, so we know this is possible.

MRG: Protests against the practice have had some success in Amsterdam, where they have now brought in other versions, such as the yellow ‘Cheese Pete’. Is the situation still very different elsewhere in the country?

JA: Our protests have been very fruitful, especially in Amsterdam. But we are not there yet. It is a step in the right direction, but not the change we need. We believe racism cannot be modified. We must deal with racism as if we are dealing with the worst cancer. There is a great part of the country, in villages and smaller cities, where people do not want to seek change – their argument is that there are no blacks, or hardly any blacks, to offend. This is of course ignorant. The Dutch were the worst kind of slave owners during the transatlantic slave trade. People do not acknowledge the racism in Zwarte Piet’s appearance, because the history of colonialism and slavery is barely mentioned in our school textbooks.

We do not want the change to be cosmetic. Real change is what we are after, not a handout. Real change will be positive for the country and the generation to come. Get rid of the stereotypes and educate the public, especially the next generation, about racism, discrimination and most importantly Dutch colonialism and its history of slave trading.

MRG: In what other areas is discrimination against people of African descent visible in the Netherlands? And what other issues do you see as priorities for your campaign to end racial inequalities?

JA: I know this is not going to sit well with the Dutch population. But just like many western countries the Netherlands is a racist country. Zwarte Piet is the most blatant evidence of this. But overall the daily racism is hidden. Of the 225 representatives in the Dutch parliament, for example, there’s not a single person of African descent. Therefore it is very disturbing to see the white population using Zwarte Piet, a figure based on the stereotypical depiction of black people in the nineteenth century, as a role model for our children.

Zwarte Piet is the symptom of a bigger problem. The actual problem is institutional racism. The country has a soft spot for racism and to this day refuses to face it. People of African descent and many non-whites are being discriminated against regularly. Often police discrimination goes unpunished and discrimination in the labour market is rarely checked. There is a widespread attitude that ‘slavery was a long time ago, get over it’. Even as we speak, the government has decided to withdraw the subsidy for the annual national commemoration of the abolition of slavery. But a growing number of black activists and others are making sure our children will be born and raised in a more just society. The country must take our call for change very seriously. We need the international community to get involved and show solidarity with our cause, for racism in the Netherlands is racism everywhere.


Making Germany a ‘no-go’ zone for racism

Katerina Avina

In recent years Germany has been experiencing a surge in hate crimes against minorities, including its black population. While there has been a reluctance to recognize the extent of this violence, rising xenophobia within the country received international attention in 2006 when a German engineer of Ethiopian descent, Ermyas Mulugeta, was beaten into a coma by far-right extremists at a bus station in Potsdam on the eve of the World Cup. The murder led to nationwide demonstrations and calls for local authorities to take urgent action.

Immediately following this incident, a former government spokesman and leader of an anti-racism organization called Show Your Colour, Uwe-Karsten Heye, argued that some parts of Germany were too dangerous for foreigners to visit. These fears were also highlighted when the Africa Council, an umbrella organization of African groups and communities in Germany, printed and distributed thousands of brochures of so-called ‘no-go‘ zones for visitors of African and Asian origin, as well as providing useful information on clubs, pubs and other public venues that used to have a history of racist attacks.

Since then, despite widespread condemnation, racist violence against Germany’s black population has persisted. ‘Nowadays,’ says Tahir Della, a member of the civil society organization Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD Bund), ‘public opinion towards minorities is becoming more and more hostile.’ The risk of targeted attacks against the black population remains high in many parts of the country, according to Della, including on the outskirts of Berlin and other cities, such as Rostock and Leipzig. This violence has in part been driven by neo-Nazi groups and other extremist groups, many of which have been banned. ‘It would be good if there were more of these sanctions,’ says Della, ‘and if they were implemented persistently. In our opinion, even though the rate of racist attacks could not be reduced, this would help to minimize the radius of operation of the organized ‘right wing’ and might prevent other crimes.’

However, without a broader effort to transform social attitudes, these measures will only have a limited effect. Discrimination against the black population is still manifested in many areas of life, including even at times the police. ISD Bund has been campaigning against racial profiling for several years now. ‘We consider this to be a form of institutionalized racism’, says Della.

‘Using skin colour, ethnicity, religion, origin or language as the basis for identification checks and searches without fundamental evidence, this is the basis of racist humiliation and violence. Apart from the unlawfulness of this habit it marks the black population as something “different”, “suspicious” or even “threatening”, which leads to the marginalisation and deprivation of these people’s rights – or at least condones it.’

These concerns have become even more pressing with the rise of xenophobic and racist political movements in the country.

To tackle the root causes of racism, ISD Bund undertakes a range of activities to promote a better popular understanding of these issues, with the aim of transforming social attitudes. ‘Racist attacks against the black community in Germany can only be prevented effectively if all social classes and structures fight together for a society free of discrimination and racism,’ says Della. ‘All public institutions should make it clear that racism can have no place in society.’ Germany’s future as a multicultural country will likely depend on its ability to ensure that the basic rights of its black population, as well as those of other vulnerable minority groups, are respected.

Afro-Caribbean woman stands by a vegetable shop in Brixton, London, UK.

Afro-Caribbean woman stands by a vegetable shop in Brixton, London, UK. Credit: Karin Bultje

Gentrification brings new challenges for Brixton’s minority communities

Electra Babouri

Brixton is an inner London neighbourhood renowned for its ethnic and cultural diversity. Beginning in the late 1940s, when migrants from the Caribbean began began to settle in the area, it has cemented a reputation as a multi-ethnic hub, with a vibrant music scene and an array of global cuisines. Yet Brixton has also seen serious political unrest, against a backdrop of unemployment, poor housing and social exclusion, highlighted by the 1981 riots. More recently, however, the local communities have been facing a new threat – gentrification. Ironically, this risks endangering the very qualities that have attracted interest and investment in the area as many residents, particularly those from minorities, find themselves priced out of Brixton.

Brixton’s landscape and demography have been slowly transforming for years, but this process has recently accelerated. While genuine regeneration has taken place and brought some benefits to communities, in many cases the neighbourhood’s image has improved while its communities have been left behind. Attracted by its multi-ethnic community, alternative feel and affordability, many high-earning white professionals – a relatively rare presence back in the 1980s – have begun moving in to the area. Simultaneously, new property developments are booming, pushing house prices up as well as the leases for commercial properties, creating considerable pressure for some traders. This is epitomized by the redeveloped Granville Arcade, now known as Brixton Village Market, where a multitude of new shops have opened to cater to a more affluent clientele – a situation that has reportedly left some minorities, such as Brixton’s Jamaican community, with a sense of displacement.

The situation highlights the difficulty of promoting economic development that is inclusive for all, particularly as London continues to struggle with an acute housing crisis. While social housing is becoming increasingly scarce, the cost of a home is rising at an alarming pace: for example, in the London Borough of Lambeth, where Brixton is situated, house prices were 37 per cent higher in the second quarter of 2014 compared to a year before. Housing shortages are particularly affecting Brixton’s black and minority ethnic (BME) population, who are more likely to experience poor housing conditions, unemployment and other indicators of social exclusion. At a national level, for example, they are reportedly seven times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation than white households.

These issues have become even more acute with the roll-out of austerity policies in the wake of the financial crisis, with reduced welfare and the introduction of the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’ – a particularly controversial policy that reduces benefits to social housing tenants deemed to have a surplus of bedrooms – hitting poor residents hardest. The London Voluntary and Service Council (LVSC) has highlighted how these changes severely impact inner London minority and disabled claimants, such as those living in Brixton, with the result that certain parts of London ‘will increasingly become “no go zones” for low-income people, a large proportion of them from BME backgrounds’. One local journalist has estimated that in Brixton over 700 households are being affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ and almost 6,000 households are now paying council tax for the first time, having previously been exempt because of low incomes.

All these factors are having an adverse impact on Brixton’s minority communities, with those most vulnerable facing debt, eviction and relocation elsewhere. In Brixton’s Coldharbour ward, one of the most deprived in London, wellbeing has deteriorated among residents, with a soup kitchen being set up to help feed those who are struggling. Research carried out by the local council highlights the concern among African-Caribbean residents about the availability of social and affordable housing, declining community infrastructure and exclusion due to gentrification.

However, there is growing awareness that something must be done to reverse this trend. For example, there have been calls to implement grants and loans to black Caribbean businesses to encourage their return. While financial support and other assistance will be a necessary part of this, it is also important that Brixton’s communities are themselves empowered to continue to play a central role in the development of their neighbourhood. In the words of Julie Fawcett, a tenant of a local estate and director of its community trust:

‘the fact that Brixton is a great place to live is a testament to those people … and now they’re being moved out…. This has always been a mixed community, and that’s what has made it a good place to live. [It] needs to be a place for everyone, and the balance is tipping.’

Ukraine fails to address hate crime against migrants and other groups

Irene Fedorovych

The Ukrainian state has been slow to recognize the reality of hate crime in the country. Even now, there continues to be a clear gap between the small number of cases officially reported each year and the much larger number of incidents recorded by NGOs and rights groups. Furthermore, until recently, while Ukraine had legal provisions (Article 161 of the Criminal Code) criminalizing ethnic or religious hatred or hostility, this legislation was very difficult to apply. This was one of the reasons why many cases were not investigated properly and perpetrators were instead convicted for hooliganism or ‘plain’ crimes, without particular mention of hate crime or other aggravating circumstances. However, in 2009 the Criminal Code was amended, and in 2012 a new Criminal Code came into force. While civil society organizations were initially hopeful that this would help create a stronger framework for investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, in practice both police and the judiciary have shown little commitment to improving their work.

Ukraine’s inadequate response to hate crimes against migrants, African students and other foreigners has previously attracted international criticism. In September 2012, following the failure of authorities to prosecute the arson of Roma houses in 2001 as a hate crime, Ukraine lost a case in the European Court of Human Rights (in Fedorchenko and Lozenko v. Ukraine) and was condemned for its inaction in the ruling:

‘There is no evidence that the authorities have conducted any investigation into the possible racist motives of this crime.… The Court considers it unacceptable that in such circumstances an investigation, lasting over 11 years, did not give rise to any serious action with a view to identifying or prosecuting the perpetrators.’

Even more troubling than the failure of the authorities to punish the perpetrators of hate crime, however, is the prosecution of minority members who have themselves been victims of violence. While a number of cases have been documented, one of the most notorious instances is the case brought against Olaolu Femi, a Nigerian student who arrived in the country in 2007 to study medicine. On 5 November 2011, his life changed completely after he was subjected to an unprovoked assault by a local gang. In the ensuing moments, Femi defended himself and his friend against his attackers with a broken bottle. When police arrived shortly afterwards, however, it was not the assailants who were arrested but Femi himself, on charges of attempted murder.

The subsequent investigation and trial have been marked by numerous procedural flaws that reflect the continued imbalances in Ukraine’s judicial response. After spending 18 months in custody, Femi was released on bail in April 2013 only after the Ombudsman for Human Rights supported a petition from a number of civil society organizations in his support. A year later, despite these irregularities and insubstantial evidence against him, on 1 April 2014 Olaolu Femi received a suspended sentence of five years with a three-year probation period. The sentence attracted widespread criticism from rights groups, with Femi announcing that he would be challenging the verdict. However, the prosecution also announced its intention to appeal for a harsher sentence.

[i] Lusane, C., ‘Pan Africanism and the black European movement’, in Invisible Visible Minority: Confronting Afrophobia and Advancing Equality for People of African Descent and Black Europeans in Europe, Brussels, European Network Against Racism, December 2014, p. 33.; Blakely, A., ‘Black European responses to the election of Barack Obama’, in European Network Against Racism, op. cit., p. 76.

[ii] Blakely, op. cit., p. 80.

[iii] Ibid., p. 77.

[iv] Ibid., p. 79.

[v] Central Statistics Office, This is Ireland – Highlights from Census 2011, Part 1, Dublin, March 2012, p. 37.

[vi] Ibid.

This story pack marks The International Decade for People of African Descent, officially launched by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.