International Day of Tolerance: How can we protect minorities from hate crimes?

To mark the International Day of Tolerance on 16 November, Amnesty researcher Marco Perolini speaks to families in Germany who have been the victims of racist threats and attacks.

An anti-racism demonstration in Hoyerswerda, Germany, in September 2012, on the anniversary of the 1991 racist riots. Credit: Theo Schneider
An anti-racism demonstration in Hoyerswerda, Germany, in September 2012, on the anniversary of the 1991 racist riots. Credit: Theo Schneider

“I am not going out without my husband anymore, I am too scared. We spend all our time indoors. People always give me bad looks just because I am wearing the headscarf and I am a foreigner, I feel so rejected here.”

‘J’ (we can’t give her real name) is a Palestinian from Lebanon living in Hoyerswerda in eastern Germany, near the Polish border. In this town, she is one of very few women wearing a headscarf. Earlier this year, she took her two children to the doctor when two men in a car approached her, started shouting insults and threw a bottle of beer at her.

“I don’t feel safe”

Her story is all too familiar. Another woman I spoke to, ‘S’, fled to Germany from Iraq with her three children. They were staying in local accommodation set up for asylum seekers when a man tried to break into the building. “I don’t feel safe here,” she tells me. “I don’t go to the park with my kids on my own and I have the impression people are very hostile in town, maybe because I’m not German.”

Last year, plans to establish accommodation for asylum seekers in Hoyerswerda triggered open hostility from locals. Far-right groups have remained active in the town following notorious racist riots in 1991, and there was a coordinated online campaign to ensure the building never opened.

“There is a lot of misinformation”“We responded immediately,” says Maruska, the engaging leader of a local community group which is working hard to prevent a repeat of the 1991 riots. “We involved local authorities and organized public events to discuss the issue. There was a lot of misinformation about asylum seekers. Many people think they are privileged and I kept on stressing the contrary.”

Across Germany, far-right groups have staged hundreds of protests against accommodation for asylum seekers. But the number of refugees here is still comparatively low – there are 2.32 refugees per 1,000 people in Germany, compared to 200 per 1,000 in Lebanon, and 100 in Jordan.

“I don’t have rights here”The situation in Germany is echoed across Europe. Violence against minorities, fuelled by intolerance and prejudice, is happening too often. In Etoliko, Greece, for example, a Roma community was subjected to violent, racist attacks in early 2012. In the same year, a woman, Michelle, was assaulted in Catania, Italy, just for being transgender.

Often, victims of hate crimes are struggling to get justice, and authorities do not recognize the racist motive behind crimes. In some cases, state officials, including police, target minorities with violence. For example, in 2011, police in Marseille injured a Roma man from Romania after he was forcibly evicted from his home.

In July, I spoke to Marwan, a Syrian refugee living in Sofia, Bulgaria, who was violently attacked in December 2013. “I came to Bulgaria to escape death in Syria but I don’t have rights here. I was beaten up and I have almost lost one eye – but the authorities are not dealing with my case.”

To make change happen, Europe needs more community initiatives like Maruska’s group in Hoyerswerda. But no local initiative can be successful if isn’t accompanied by a larger debate on racism and discrimination. And governments have to ensure that hate crimes are recognized as such.