Several people have been arrested in the period around 1 April 2017, in connection with a violent attack on a teenage asylum seeker in Croydon, the United Kingdom. The teenager, a seventeen-year-old Kurdish Iranian, was approached by a group of about eight people at a bus stop in Croydon, demanding to know where he was from. After telling them that he was an asylum seeker, the group chased and attacked him. The violence was so brutal that the victim was left with a fractured skull and a blood clot on the brain. The attack is currently being investigated by the police as a hate crime and has been condemned by several Members of Parliament, the Shadow Home Secretary and the Director of Advocacy at the Refugee Council. Gavin Barwell, the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, expressed that he was ‘appalled’ by the attack. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, stated that he was ‘absolutely shocked’.
Attacks like these are not isolated incidents in Europe. In November 2016, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) launched a report indicating that violence, harassment, threats and xenophobic speech targeting asylum seekers and migrants remain pervasive and grave across the EU. Right-wing politicians in the EU (and beyond!) are promoting anti-immigrant, xenophobic views, which may partially explain the occurrence of hate crimes in this context. Thus, we cannot act surprised when violence is perpetrated against asylum seekers, especially in those EU Member States where the political discourse and the media ensure that ‘anti-immigrant’ prejudice becomes mainstreamed as a common-sense response.
Although several EU Member States have passed legislation allowing for the investigation of hate crimes committed against members of disadvantaged groups, including asylum seekers, this legislation is insufficient to tackle the problem. Effective measures must be developed to understand and prevent hate crimes against asylum seekers in Europe.
One way to create awareness and a better understanding of hate crimes in this sphere, would be to encourage all EU Member States to monitor and collect data on incidents and hate crime targeting asylum seekers and, subsequently, to make these reports available to the public. Within this context, Member States ought to develop methods that empower hate crime victims or witnesses to report these offenses to the police. In the report mentioned earlier, the FRA provided examples of practices from some EU Member States through which barriers to the reporting of hate crime may be removed. The following experience from Finland can be mentioned in this regard: in that country, an informative brochure on hate crimes in eleven languages was released in October 2016 by the Finnish League for Human Rights, RIKU Victim Support Finland and the Ministry of the Interior, in order to encourage victims or witnesses to report hate crimes to the police. The brochure was disseminated online and through victim support service points, as well as by police. A course was also organised in 2016, enabling participants from different immigrant organisations and associations to gain knowledge about victims’ rights, the work of the police and the victim support services available, amongst other things. Additionally, police units have visited reception centres to build up trust with asylum seekers and to inform them about their rights, the relevant laws and legal processes.
A way to prevent hate crimes against asylum seekers would be to create programmes at national level, which promote non-discrimination of asylum seekers and prevent extremism. Political actors, but also the media, share a responsibility for developing a societal climate in which multicultural diversity is embraced instead of abandoned. In addition, it would be desirable, as once suggested by Helen O’Nions, if EU Member States insisted that some of their representatives use less inflammatory language and tackled widespread misconceptions regarding immigration and asylum.
Understanding and preventing hate crimes against asylum seekers ought to be placed high on the policy agendas of EU Member States. Such an approach is justified at least by the significantly negative impact that hate crimes have on victims. Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable in this regard, as they often lack a political voice. However, hate crimes against asylum seekers have an even broader negative effect: not only do they violate the rights of the victims themselves, but they also more generally affect the principles of equality, tolerance and diversity in European societies. The rights of asylum seekers should be recognised in an appropriate manner, in which legal wrongs, such as hate crimes committed against these individuals, are made transparent. Furthermore, brave politicians and journalists are now needed who run counter to the mainstream and condemn this type of violence.