Young people harassed at EP event; organisers say it wasn’t first time

Members of FEMYSO participated in a panel on anti-discrimination, part of which was disrupted by the far-right youth groups. [Photo from @FEMYSO on Twitter]

*Updates with comments from MEP Catherine Griset

Far-right youth delegations harassed members of ethnic and racial minority groups at this year’s European Youth Event (EYE), held at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 8-9 October.

Every two years, thousands of young people gather at the event to share their ideas on “equality, inclusiveness and sustainability.” But students invited by the far-right Identity & Democracy Party (ID) allegedly joined and disrupted workshops hosted by #DiasporaVote! and the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations (FEMYSO).

Others reportedly engaged in targeted harassment of specific young people on Twitter.

Members of #DiasporaVote! came to Strasbourg from various countries and ethnic backgrounds across Europe. Many participants were visiting the Parliament for the first time, according to a statement from the group.

According to Chaka Welch, a #DiasporaVote! organiser, far-right students shouted racist slogans, including “Europe is white and Christian!” during the “Check Your Bias: Become an anti-racist ally” workshop on 9 October.

Welch said the organiser asked participants to discuss their personal experiences with racism, if they felt comfortable doing so. That’s when the workshop got heated.

“We noticed that they were purposely making us see that they were there to oppose whatever we had to say even before they were ready to listen,” Welch said.

“The ID Group will not comment on allegations that are not substantiated,” the parliamentary factions’ secretary-general Philip Claeys told EURACTIV in emailed comments.

“On the other hand, several Members of the ID Group voiced their concern that FEMYSO, an organisation linked to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, gets invited by the European Parliament and gets the opportunity to use its usual tactics and play the victim card in order to silence other people,” he added.

“At no point did we ever impose our own ideas about what racism or discrimination was to us,” Welch explained. “It was really to simply ask questions and to let the audience give their answers, and realise themselves that they might know a lot more about what racism truly is, but maybe it wasn’t verbalised before.”

Similar incidents happened during workshops hosted by FEMYSO, which brought young Muslims to Strasbourg from over 14 countries.

According to a statement released after EYE, at the end of an anti-discrimination panel, “disgusting Islamophobic rhetoric was shouted in the microphone directed to the moderator.”

Members of the far-right group reportedly also posted pictures of FEMYSO participants online, with hashtags like #StopImmigration.

Nadia Karera, the #DiasporaVote! gender/equality employment team president, said “it was planned because they targeted all the workshops that had to do with discrimination.”

The far-right youth group Generation Nation was invited by Catherine Griset, a French lawmaker from the ID Party. Two days after EYE, Griset posted a tweet lauding the twelve students for their patriotism and defence of “identity, sovereignty and freedom.”

Griset later told EURACTIV that the Generation Nation delegation “came up against dogmatism and fanaticism of unprecedented violence, and were subjected to various insults, notably racist” during the debate. She said the FEMYSO had “invented exchanges that they had filmed without broadcasting the images”.

Griset added, without elaborating, that FEMYSO had been found to be “behind the campaign of the Council of Europe to promote the hijab. The activism of Islamists and indigenists should worry us to the highest point.”

Other statements by MEPs from ID included messages like “let’s fight for our freedom.”

Lawmakers respond

Saskia Bricmont (Greens/EFA), who sponsored some of the #DiasporaVote! participants, said similar harassment has occurred in previous years of EYE and, more recently, at diversity and LGBTQIA fora.

“We try to uphold values and fundamental rights, but it seems that in the premise of the European Parliament, we failed to ensure that they’re really respected and fulfilled,” the Belgian MEP said.

Bricmont sent a letter with two fellow MEPs, co-signed by 149 lawmakers, to European Parliament President David Sassoli asking for a “strong response” from the institution.

An inquiry into the harassment has begun to determine whether or not the disturbances were premeditated and identify the specific people or groups responsible.

Bricmont suggested stricter controls at the entrance to future EYE events and increased security at individual workshops and panels.

“If the far-right… behave badly in [Parliamentary] plenary sessions, they’re excluded,” Bricmont said. “There are sanctions, and that needs to happen as well when they have guests and young people.”

Bricmont said that if the Parliament’s found that the students were coached, it would be “highly problematic.”

“It’s a strategy from the far-right to infiltrate their own young people in democratic processes, and it just cannot be tolerated in Belgium,” she explained.

Salima Yenbou, another green MEP, agreed that change is necessary.

“If our reaction had been present after the previous edition of EYE, this probably would not have happened,” Yenbou said.

The EYE code of conduct underscores the “zero-tolerance policy towards any
kind of discrimination or threatening behaviour,” but Yenbou said officials must put more focus on ensuring that these policies are adhered to.

“At the same time, there needs to be some responsibility from the MEPs who invite the young people,” Yenbou said.

These sentiments were echoed by organisers from #DiasporaVote!, who said they hoped for change and better experiences for young people in the future.

“Hate crimes may seem lesser than physical violent crimes, but I think in a wider context, they touch a lot more people for much longer,” Welch said.

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