FRA/Committee of the Regions Annual Dialogue: Combating hate crime

Speech by Friso Roscam Abbing, Head of the FRA's Communication Department, to the FRA/Committee of the Regions Annual Dialogue, Brussels, 24 September 2013.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you first of all for the invitation to speak to you today. I will be talking about hate crime, a topic that has been climbing steadily up the EU agenda. A little later, we will also introduce FRA’s new toolkit, which is aimed at helping local, regional and national public officials to improve fundamental rights implementation throughout the EU.

Hate crime includes violence and harassment motivated by racism, xenophobia, or religious intolerance, or by bias against a person’s disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. And as we emphasise in the background note you have in front of you, this phenomenon is a daily reality in the European Union. The topic is currently of particular importance because the EU is in the course of reviewing its legislation on combating racism and xenophobia and at the same time, progress is being made in implementing new EU legislation on victims’ rights in the Member States.

Research by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has repeatedly demonstrated how pervasive hate crime is in Europe. Here are just a few examples:

  • In a survey of ethnic minority and immigrant groups throughout the EU, up to 32% of Roma were victims of assault, threat or serious harassment with a perceived racist motive in the 12 months prior to the survey.
  • 26% of the LGBT people FRA surveyed throughout the EU had experienced violence in the five years preceding the survey, with the figure rising to 35% for transgender people.
  • 26% of the Jewish people FRA surveyed last year in eight Member States had experienced some form of harassment in the 12 months preceding the survey.

In addition,

it must be remembered that hate crime transcends the experiences of the individuals directly involved. Homophobic, racist and other crimes motivated by prejudice create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that does great damage on a far larger scale. For hate crimes harm not only the victim, but also other people (perceived as) belonging to the same group and, more broadly, society as a whole.

What steps need to be taken to tackle crimes motivated by prejudice and bias? And what contribution can you make, as regional and local authorities, to fighting hate crime?

To begin with: in order to combat hate crime, it must become more visible. One of the biggest challenges we currently face in the EU on this issue are the enormous gaps in data collection. Firstly because there remains a lack of confidence among victims that the authorities are able – or willing – to afford them the protection they need, making them reluctant to report hate crimes to the police or any other authority. And secondly because at present, only four EU Member States (Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK) collect comprehensive data on bias-motivated offences. This prevents us from establishing the true extent of hate crime.

So in order to combat hate crime and its associated fundamental rights violations, it is crucial for action to be taken by governments and policymakers from the local to the national at three levels: legislation, policy and practice.

  • At the level of legislation, this means acknowledging the very fact of hate crime, the bias motivations underlying it, and the effect it has on victims and the groups to which they belong.
  • At the policy level, it means taking action to collect detailed and reliable data on hate crime and ensuring effective prosecution.
  • But for our discussions here today, it is perhaps the practical level that is most important. This entails reaching out to local communities to build trust in the police and other law enforcement agencies; training police officers to be sensitive to victims of bias-motivated crimes; and making sure the public is aware that the authorities take hate crime and its consequences seriously.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is from local authorities first and foremost that citizens expect immediate and effective action when social tensions rise or they become victims of violence. Because local and regional authorities act to a great extent as intermediaries between citizens and the government, they are in a good position to enter into dialogue with the national authorities. Together with the police, therefore, they can help to develop effective and sustainable ways of preventing bias-motivated crime.

Local authorities also have a vital role to play in victim support, helping to ensure victims are aware of their rights and know where to turn for advice and support, as well as funding support services of various kinds.

Moreover, local authorities’ leadership is also needed to develop dialogue in regions that have high ethnic or religious minority populations between the general population and groups that often find themselves the target of hate crime.

In this respect, there are already a number of projects around the EU that have worked or are continuing to work extremely well. One example are the police services in Stockholm and other towns, which set up specialised hate crime units that help to train police officers who work directly with the public. Another example is in the Netherlands, where central government is working together with local authorities to prevent violence against LGBT people:

  1. by providing information and training youth workers
  2. creating safe meeting places for young LGBT people
  3. and encouraging victims to report homophobic crimes.

Before I end my remarks, I would like briefly to mention the ‘Joined up Governance’ toolkit, which my colleague Andreas Accardo will talk about in more detail a little later. Suffice it to say here that the aim of the toolkit is to improve cooperation between local authorities, institutions and policymakers at national and international level, helping you in your efforts to safeguard fundamental rights for everybody in our society.

To conclude,

There are many fundamental rights issues on which we at FRA are convinced that we can achieve more in partnership with LRAs, which often hold the key to effecting real, tangible improvements for Europe’s citizens. Hate crime is one of these issues.

In this spirit, therefore, I would like to wish you all a constructive discussion, remembering that the subject of hate crime is not just important for its victims but for European society as a whole, and thus for all of us here today.