Grassroots solidarity against EU-wide rise in hate crimes

EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová has launched a working group on combating hate crimes in June 2016. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA]

Hate speech, racist acts, anti-Semitic violence and assaults on LGBT people: in recent years, discriminatory violence has skyrocketed. Local actors in Europe are making the most of their imagination to face them. EURACTIV France reports.

In Charlottesville in August, a racist demonstration sparked widespread indignation and condemnation around the world. Starting with Europe, where heads of state were the first to condemn the US president for not clearly denouncing the racism of the American right-wing.

“Racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are poisons for our societies,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. As a European, he was proud of the values conveyed by the Europe of the Enlightenment: “tolerance, respect for others, and the importance of the recognition of diversity”.

But the Charlottesville incident is not isolated, and discriminatory violence is not a prerogative of the United States. Official data show an upsurge in anti-Semitic violence in a majority of EU member states between 2005 and 2015.

An ad hoc working group against hate crimes

Discrimination has multiplied on the Old Continent: attacks on refugee centres, attacks on LGBT people, anti-Semitism, hate speech against Roma and the disabled or stigmatization of Muslims.

This trend is a matter of great concern to the European Commission. In June 2016, Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová launched a high-level group to combat racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. According to her, “the current situation is an unprecedented societal challenge for Europe”.

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The platform aims to increase synergies among all stakeholders, develop strategies to combat racism and intolerance, and collect data on hate crimes.

“Too often, people are harassed, threatened, or verbally or physically assaulted because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability,” the Commissioner said.

In Germany, for example, the number of incidents targeting centres housing asylum-seekers has increased from 62 in 2012 to 1,610 in 2015.

The EU’s many laws against racism and xenophobia clearly show their limitations: seldom enforced, they are not an effective deterrent.

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Pruning prejudices

Prevention on the ground, therefore, seems more effective and many local authorities are mobilizing against discrimination together with associations.

In Austria, as elsewhere in the EU, the wave of solidarity for the refugees lasted only a few months before being carried away by the negative rhetoric of the political class and extreme right groups as well as the amalgamations of all kinds generated by the terrorist attacks in several European cities.

To counteract the phenomenon, Antonia Titscher, with the help of friends and students, set up a community garden project, with the aim of entrusting the plots of land to asylum seekers in Sankt Pölten, the capital of Lower Austria.

The project began in February 2013: the municipality allowed them to manage part of a park in the city, and one of the students started a crowdfunding campaign to raise 800 euros to buy seeds, plants, and some tools. Although they have little experience in gardening, they take care of the organisation and the gardeners/refugees share their expertise in the field.

“We say ‘gardeners’ and not ‘asylum seekers’, because integration begins there, by not stigmatizing a specific group of people,” says Antonia Titscher. “Of course, we focus on immigrants but the garden is open to the entire community. Some neighbours come to see us and ask us if they can plant something and the communication starts, in German”.

Persuaded that gardening has therapeutic effects against the trauma suffered by refugees in their exodus, Antonia says this activity also gives a function to the asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work.

“It allows them to express themselves and feel valued because they are doing something they can do,” she adds.

The team has just finished its fourth season of vegetable harvest. Each year, the project receives more and more requests, and usually, gardener families or gardeners alone share their plot with friends or family. When winter arrives, gardening is paused, but the team is already preparing next season while organising dinners, meetings, and excursions.

In Italy, a Chagall expo for the homeless

In Italy, it was art rather than gardening that inspired the creation of the Happy Centre in Bologna. Its objective is to promote exchanges and interactions between the homeless and local residents. The association wants to put an end to stereotypes about homelessness and their marginalization. In the morning, they can come to the centre to drink coffee, read the newspaper, surf the Internet, play chess, and the afternoon is reserved for activities mixing everyone: philosophy, sewing, theatre.

“The Happy Centre’s goal is to restore confidence in the homeless and to show them that they are able to do things,” says Martina Bonato, the Centre’s coordinator.

A few months ago, while a museum in Milan was exhibiting Chagall’s works, the homeless of the centre studied the catalogues of the exhibition in order to be the guides. Bologna residents wishing to take part in the excursion paid a small sum which covered journey costs of the homeless who guided them through the museum.

“This is not education in the formal sense; here residents and the homeless are on the same level. They talk together, they learn together, help each other and discuss philosophy together. What we want is integration,” she says.

The association targeted the homeless but soon realized that the centre would become a community centre. And the municipality, which finances the project, seems to realize this too.

“Being located in an area dense with social housing, we see elderly people who feel lonely, migrants and so on,” says Martina Bonato.

Migrants wanting to learn Italian, homeless people wanting to learn English – language exchanges are quickly organized.

“We also gave the keys to a group of elderly people to meet at 8 am to do gymnastics, for both muscles and neurons. Before this, they did it in the bar next door, at least now they have a place”.

Projects that multiply all over Europe: dozens of such experiences are recorded from Poland to the United Kingdom, from Germany to Estonia, mostly thanks to European funding, difference and diversity is an integral part of the European project.

But in the face of extreme right-wing groups or the defenders of Brexit who promote withdrawal, the European Social Fund for employment and inclusion still has some work to do.