Interview: Xenophobia and Racism Continue to Pose a Threat | Inside Europe | DW | 27.09.2007
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Inside Europe

Interview: Xenophobia and Racism Continue to Pose a Threat

Since March this year, the European Union has its own agency collecting data on rights within the 27 member bloc -- the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) based in Vienna.

Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos monitors discrimination across the EU

Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos monitors discrimination across the EU

To mark the 2007 European Year of Equal Opportunities for All, Inside Europe talked to FRA's Head of Research and Data Collection, Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos.

Inside Europe: How much of a problem is discrimination in the EU?

Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos: What we find is that it has been an ongoing problem for several decades -- it is not a new problem. It is difficult to say exactly why such a problem exists; it is people’s attitudes, it is people’s behavior. Our job is to monitor the situation and to propose policy-related solutions to the problem, rather than discovering the root causes. What we are particularly interested in, is what action is being taken, particularly at member state level, and whether this action is effective.

As you said, these problems aren’t new. Has enough been done so far to combat them?

Quite a lot is being done, but it doesn’t always seem to be very effective. It seems that in number of countries there haven’t been any sanctions despite the existence of legislation, and that for us is worrying. Although legislation is now in place in practically all member states against discrimination, it seems that a lot of people are not aware of this legislation, not enough information is given, particularly to vulnerable groups, on how to use the existing legal instruments. And also that the equality bodies that have been set up to deal with discrimination are not well enough resourced to deal with cases. So it is not enough simply have the laws, but people have to be informed that the laws are there and they must be given practical access to the use of the legislation.

Is that the fault of the individual governments or the EU as a whole?

I think that the EU, as far as the commission is concerned at least, has done as much as it could at a European level. It launched a large-scale project to inform citizens and of course, other key stakeholders in all the member states of the anti-discrimination measures. But from then on, we find that there are several member states where the information campaigns were not, let’s say, as effective as they should have been, so there has not been enough investment in public information.

To what extent can we talk about uniform trends within the EU? After all, we’re talking about twenty-seven very different countries.

Precisely. We can’t really talk about uniform trends. We have to look separately at the member states. But in some cases we can -- and we do -- group member states together, for example on the basis of some objective data (or) on the number of sanctions that exist. A number of countries have practically no sanctions, another group has very few sanctions, and one or two countries have had decisions with sanctions that were worthwhile and were even highlighted in the media. So we do group, in a sense, countries together and we try to monitor their performance.

I would imagine there is very much an East-West difference here.

Not really, no. We haven’t found this. We find, for example, that there are some countries that are taking important steps to at least, first of all monitor the situation. For example, a number of the eastern countries are monitoring discrimination on ethnic grounds, particularly concerning the Roma, far better than some of the “older” member states do.

Why do you think that is the case?

I think that there is heightened sensitivity which is largely the result of work throughout the period since their application for EU membership, where it was clear that the whole process of applying for membership and successfully joining the EU depended also on their performance regarding minorities and they tried to do their best, whereas such a process was not clearly evident in member states that were already members.

Where do you see the challenges in the future in terms on ensuring fundamental rights?

We put a lot of emphasis and we are very interested in seeing much more of awareness-raising and information campaigns by the member states to inform their citizens and particularly the vulnerable groups of their rights. This would, for example, necessitate a multi-lingual approach. It would be easier instead of having an information campaign only in the main national language, also to inform migrants in their own language, which is something that some member states do, but perhaps it is a good practice that others could adopt as well. Secondly, the equality bodies should be resourced appropriately. In a number of member states the equality bodies are not yet fully operational, and in some cases even where they are they are not adequately resourced to deal with complaints fully.

Helen Seeney interviewed Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos.

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