The appointment of Italy’s first black cabinet minister was a cause for celebration for anti-racism campaigners in Europe.
Their joy was cut short by reactions to Congo-born Cecile Kyenge taking office.
“This is a bonga bonga government,” said Mario Borghezio, a member of the European Parliament representing Italy’s Northern League party. “It seems to me she’d be a great housekeeper, but not a government minister.”
Yet in the days that followed, more outbreaks of racism illustrated what activists denounce as a trend of growing intolerance fueled by Europe’s economic crisis.
French anti-gay marriage protesters produced a poster portraying Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, as an evil gorilla.
In Athens, authorities clashed violently with a Nazi-influenced party whose electoral support has soared.
Fans shouting racial abuse of black players halted a match between two of Italy’s top soccer teams.
“There is definitely an exacerbation of negative perceptions of migrants, and ethnic and religious minorities, with the current economic crisis,” said Georgina Siklossy, spokeswoman at the European Network Against Racism, formed by campaign groups from 26 countries.
Pan-European figures on racism are hard to come by, due to differences in definitions and reporting among national authorities. Support for openly racist or anti-immigration politicians is on the rise in several countries, however, and activists report a rise in hate crime and discrimination.
Greece, the country hardest hit by the euro zone crisis, has emerged with serious racism problems linked to the rise of the Golden Dawn party.
The Nazi-inspired movement saw its support rise from 0.3 percent in 2009 elections to 7 percent last year—winning 21 seats in parliament with the slogan: “So we can rid this land of filth.”
Greece is a special case, says Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos, of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, who rejects the idea of a generalized increase of racism across Europe resulting form the economic crisis.
“The economic crisis does feed into a variety of reactions and racism is one of them [but] it’s quite localized and depends on specific local conditions,” Dimitrakopoulos said from the agency’s headquarters in Vienna. “The data we have does not indicate a general movement across Europe.”
He points to the lack of a Greek-style backlash against migrants in Spain or Portugal, where the economic crisis has also taken a heavy toll.
In northern Europe, he says, anti-immigration parties have suffered losses in recent Dutch and Danish elections.
The sudden arrival of newcomers combined with the economic collapse since 2009 have created a perfect storm for racism to develop in Greece. But there are warnings the prolonged recession is whipping up prejudice against minorities elsewhere.
Data published last year by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights showed ethnic minorities face a high level of hate crime in countries across Europe.
Eighteen percent of sub-Saharan Africans and a similar number of Roma Gypsies suffered assault, threats or serious harassment, according to the agency’s survey carried out in 2008 across the 27 EU nations.