Visual Journalism Team at Deutsche Welle

published 24.07.2019

Migrants and discrimination across Europe

For Aiham Issa, a Syrian refugee in Germany, hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t experience discrimination. He is not alone. Across Europe migrants, refugees and their descendants are reporting an increase in xenophobia. These are some of their stories.

Most Europeans want less migration. Most still welcome refugees. Most Europeans support an immigration ban from Muslim countries. Most are willing to accept migrants and respect their rights.

Whichever of these contradictory headlines about European attitudes you believe, they all risk obscuring the perspectives of one important group: the 12% of the EU's population who are themselves immigrants.

Turning the spotlight on immigrants and their descendants reveals a less-reported perspective on life in the continent and what needs to change.

You're not from around here

The story starts with Aiham Issa, a lawyer from Syria who now lives in Germany.

Aiham Issa's experience

The pattern

Issa is far from alone in his experiences outside the nightclub, on the subway and in the job market.

In Vienna a team of researchers is tasked with tracking the phenomenon of racist discrimination and harassment. They work for the Agency for Fundamental Rights, a center set up by the European Union to tackle prejudice and defend universal rights.

For their most recent report, they assembled an army of interviewers in 28 countries. They aimed to speak to over 15,000 people who had lived in the EU for at least a year, but whose country of birth (or that of their parents) was outside the continent. The researchers conducted some interviews in languages other than the official language of each country to help ensure that they reached residents whose views might be missing from other surveys.

The overall results found that 24% of respondents had felt discriminated against because of their ethnic, religious or migration background in the 12 months preceding the survey. This suggests that millions of people like Aiham were experiencing discrimination in everyday life: unequal treatment for no other reason than where they are from or what they believe.

I have the feeling that here in Germany we are not treated like Germans or Europeans

And the situation is getting worse for many communities, the report suggests. The researchers' verdict is damning: The fight against discrimination and hate is failing to deliver. Laws and policies to tackle the problem, they said, are not adequately protecting the people they are meant to serve.

10% to 31% of respondents from four migrant communities in the European Union said they had experienced discrimination in the 12 months before they were surveyed.

Which migrant communities experience the most discrimination in Europe

Seeds of hate

What is driving racial discrimination in Europe?

About 3 million people came to Europe in 2015 and 2016, fleeing war and persecution. Media reports called it a 'migration crisis' owing to the sudden increase in numbers, and often assumed that hostility towards migrants was the natural and inevitable consequence.

But is it fair to blame the problem of xenophobia on the mere presence of foreigners? This assumption seems more doubtful in light of evidence that today's prejudices can be traced to ideas sown long before the arrival of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

If politicians are always saying minorities are a threat, that signal goes out to society

Liz Fekete, director of the Institute for Race Relations in London, has spent the last three decades monitoring the phenomenon.

By tracking the rhetoric of mainstream politicians, she explains how the official stance on migrants has tilted towards that of the far-right and how that affects members of minority groups in the European Union.

Liz Fekete on how the centre has co-opted the far-right

The case of the Netherlands

The situation for migrants in various EU countries is not always the same. But if there is one country that could be seen as a bellwether for the development of racism in Europe, the Netherlands is a good candidate.

The Fundamental Rights Agency's figures reflecting the experience of North African migrant communities – a group that was sampled in several European countries – show the number of people experiencing discrimination in the Netherlands increased sharply.

Statistics show racism is getting worse in Europe

Between 2008 and 2016, self-reported discrimination against people of North African descent fell in some EU countries like Italy, Belgium and Spain …

… but in others like the Netherlands and France, people from North African descent reported more discrimination in 2016 compared to 2008

How right-wing ideas on migration have spread

There was no increase in immigration in the Netherlands around this time. In fact, net immigration fell from 2.6% in 2008, to 1.9% in 2016. But the increase in discrimination is easier to understand when you look at the political landscape in the country over the period. It is a story that has since played out in similar ways in many other European countries.

On one hand, there have been firebrand politicians such as Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders, who attracted media coverage and gained support with radical right-wing rhetoric. Casting immigrants as a cultural threat to Dutch society – identifying Muslims in particular as a supposed cause for concern – generated headlines and captured attention.

At the same time, these ideas have taken the form of protest movements against immigration, which also often adopted the rhetoric of Islamophobia. While these views were far from universally accepted – there were also counter-protests of people who wanted to welcome refugees to the country – mainstream politicians took them seriously and started to incorporate them into their own policies and speeches.

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, was seen to have adopted the style of the radical right when he took out full-page newspaper adverts during an election campaign in January 2017. The adverts, which took the form of a letter written by the prime minister himself, argued that minorities were too quick to complain about discrimination. "If you reject our country, I'd prefer you leave," he wrote. "Be normal or be gone."

The rise of racism in the Netherlands in pictures

Has populism gone mainstream?

Geert Wilders' political party received 13% of the vote in the Netherlands' last general election in 2017. It remains in opposition, and is considered controversial. So to what extent have its ideas really spread within society?

For Abdou Menebhi, who runs a hotline for Muslims in the Netherlands to report racist incidents, the trend is clear.

Abdou Menebhi speaks about his experience

Hostility by design

Not only has the inflammatory rhetoric of the nationalist parties directly encouraged discrimination, but concrete policy changes from Europe's governments may also have contributed to unequal treatment.

Researchers working on the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) have compiled an exhaustive catalog of even the most subtle changes to EU nations' migration policies. This EU-funded initiative, a coalition of experts at universities and think tanks across Europe and beyond, compiles data tracking what governments are doing to enable migrants to participate fully and equally in society.

DW analyzed the data to identify detrimental changes to migration policies between 2008 and 2014, the most recent year for which data is available. In that time, 21 of the EU's 28 countries brought in new restrictions on the rights of foreigners. This shows how the anti-migration agenda was spreading, even before the rise in immigration in 2015-16.

Even in the Dutch parliament, the anti-Muslim discourse is accepted. It's very common.

The country making the largest number of changes was the Netherlands, which brought in measures in 17 distinct areas, including cutting migrants' access to university education, implementing tighter rules on family reunification, restricting access to jobs and reducing state funding for migrant advocacy groups. That shift took the Netherlands from among the more open European countries to one of the least welcoming.

The raft of anti-migrant policies tracked in the MIPEX data provides further evidence to suggest that the feelings of discrimination experienced by people from minority groups are not simply the acts of individual bigots.

From words to actions

Everyday discrimination can have a serious impact on those who experience it. Though it is less frequent, prejudice can also take the form not only of words and ideas, but physical violence.

Assa Traoré feels this closely: Her brother, Adama Traoré, died in police custody in Paris in 2016. The official story is that he died of existing illnesses, but Assa believes that her brother's death fits a pattern of killings of black men by police. She leads a campaign to establish the truth.

Assa Traoré speaks about her experience

Adama Traoré

Much of Assa Traoré's testimony is already supported by official reports. An ombudsman found in 2017 that police stops of young black men were characterized by brutality. Human Rights Watch has said that police identity checks "are carried out in a discriminatory and abusive manner against a part of the population."

The death of her brother Adama Traoré is the subject of an official inquiry. It remains to be seen whether the campaigners will eventually be vindicated by the state, as has happened in several previous cases of deaths in French police custody.

Against a background of discrimination, insults and violence, some in the EU have decided to call for change.

Abdou Menebhi is one of those who have taken their experience in everyday life to the political arena. He raised funds to launch a legal challenge against the Dutch politician Wilders, arguing that his comments about Moroccans amounted to incitement.

The court agreed, and Wilders was convicted. Wilders is appealing the decision, but his ability to garner support with xenophobic rhetoric already seems to have taken a knock: His party lost all its seats in last month's elections for the European Parliament.

Such a development may seem small against the tide of hostility. But Menebhi's campaign shows what is possible when migrant voices are heard.


Author: Tom Wills

Video Journalism: Gönna Ketels, Tom Wills

Picture Research: Goran Cutanoski, Ronka Oberhammer

Archive Research: Stephan Ritter, Heike Ularich

Video Production: Klaudia Begić, Jacky Duchemin, Stefan Eichberg, Marcel Epple, Praphaphorn Khankhaeng, Willy Schmidt, Pascal Sentenac, Peter Thorn, Charlotte Wettig, Chris Wright

Video Design: René Lange

Editing: Gianna Grün, Sandra Petersmann, Kristin Zeier

Copyediting: Milan Gagnon

Development: Olga Urusova-Maisels, Solvejg Plank, Olof Pock

Webdesign: Angela Dehio, Anna Stylianakis, Christian Kuhn, Philipp Gellenthin