Why singling out ethnic and religious minorities will not end terrorism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The articles of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, chalked on steps. [UniversityofEssex/Flickr]

On International Human Rights Day (10 December), European citizens and residents have the right to feel safe, but not at the expense of other human rights, argues Claire Fernandez.

Claire Fernandez, Deputy Director of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR).

The Paris terror attacks have led to heightened security fears across Europe. While it is tempting for many governments of the European Union to respond to these fears with all-out security and counter-terrorism measures, caution should be applied. One alarming aspect of these measures is the disproportionate impact they are likely to have on ethnic and religious minorities in Europe, as well as refugees coming to seek safety in Europe – in particular Muslims and those perceived as such.

Measures such as Passenger Name Records, and other data mining and surveillance practices, could lead to racial profiling by police and border control authorities. This entails singling out people solely on the basis of their racial, ethnic or religious characteristics and is discriminatory and unfair. Practices that have been reported include mass ID checks of people in public places, raids on mosques, discriminatory stop and search and the arrest of persons with “visible characteristics of difference” on the basis of circumstantial evidence that would not lead to the detention of white persons in similar cases.

Controls at external borders are based on EU-defined “common risk indicators” but these are not grounded in strict indicators and assessment criteria. Authorities are using “proxies” to gather data revealing race, ethnic origin or religion. Names are for instance used as a proxy for race, ethnic origin or religion, while being often an inaccurate indication. Other information such as residency status, home address, nationality, place of birth, phone calls to certain countries, time of bank operations or physical appearance (a beard, a veil, etc.) could be used to racially profile individuals.

These preventive surveillance practices effectively mean that Muslims, in particular young men, are subjected to greater scrutiny, leaving them feeling humiliated and alienated. Other groups, such as people of African descent and Roma, also fear they will be increasingly targeted as ‘outsiders’ or ‘potential dangers’. Discriminatory practices also reinforce stigmatisation and criminalisation by the general public and an us-versus-them discourse.

Racial profiling is not only unfair, but also ineffective and counter-productive. The very communities whose support is necessary for fighting crime and terrorism are reluctant to cooperate with the police, who they see as biased. Policing depends on cooperation from the public to report crime, provide suspect descriptions and give witness testimonies. Research shows that poor police-citizen contacts and bad treatment by law enforcement officers has a negative impact on public confidence in law enforcement and results in reduced cooperation with the latter.

The European Union has the power to reverse the rising tendency of trading human rights for ‘security at all costs’ and must use it. Both the EU agenda for security and the EU migration agenda should include safeguards against discriminatory practices. The European Commission should also develop guidelines for fair and effective policing and provide funding for the development of civil society or law-enforcement good practices.

On International Human Rights Day, it is time for the European Union to step in to uphold the right to non-discrimination as one of its key values. Human rights should guide counter-terrorism policies, not fear and prejudice.

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