Fighting Racism in Times of Economic Austerity

RightsNI is delighted to welcome this guest post from Karen McLaughlin, Legal Policy Officer, NICEM. NICEM works across five policy areas primarily focused on advancing the economic, social and cultural rights of BME communities living in Northern Ireland, namely housing and social security; education; employment and training; health and justice. In addition, NICEM works to mainstream racial equality into government policy and practice at all levels as well as working to ensure legal safeguards are put in place to combat discrimination in access to and delivery of public services. Follow on @NICEMNI. This was originally posted on the Minority Rights Now blog at 


Three key institutions across Europe (EU FRA, OSCE ODIHR and ECRI) have come together today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which marks the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre during apartheid in South Africa, to send a strong message to European leaders that “austerity is no excuse for racism”.

This is something that NICEM has been acutely aware of in its recent appearances before NI politicians (see here and here) in relation to the impending reform of the welfare system. Despite numerous national, European and international anti-discrimination laws, the draft welfare reform legislation contains the power to treat EEA nationals (persons coming from EU Member States as well as Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland) differently to British/Irish nationals in certain circumstances, specifically where that person has a disability or caring responsibilities.

NICEM feels this also amounts to multiple discrimination, which is an issue that both our legislators and policy-makers have failed to grapple with. This power has already been utilised in Great Britain and will come into effect there at the end of April, but NICEM is actively lobbying politicians in Northern Ireland to prevent this from coming into force here.

Our primary concern with this legislation is that it will inevitably lead to more migrants living in destitution. At the moment, persons coming from outside the European Union do not have recourse to public funds, but often EEA nationals with benefits entitlements find themselves in dire straits due to the delays in the administration of the welfare system and the decisions of frontline staff, which are often overturned on appeal. In the last year the Belfast Migrant Centre, NICEM’s sister advice organisation, supported migrants to access benefits entitlements to the value of over £720,000 and have also administered crisis funding to those who have no recourse to public funds.

A recent report on poverty and ethnicity in Northern Ireland has illustrated that even when migrants have high levels of qualifications and skills, they are often underemployed, working in low-paid jobs and this inevitably means that their income will need to be supplemented by benefits in order to ensure an adequate standard of living. This is also something, which was raised by the head of the EU FRA in the joint statement mentioned above.

Therefore, it is clear that specific measures need to be taken to protect new arrivals, as well as the more established BME communities, against social exclusion. Indeed this was strongly emphasised at the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001, as well as pointing out that poverty can contribute to the persistence of racist attitudes and practices, which in turn generate more poverty, coined as the ‘vicious cycle of poverty’.

Last month, Prime Minister Cameron vowed to “make sure that ours is the toughest country instead of the softest” in terms of migrants’ access to economic, social and cultural rights. In fact, research has shown that often migrants, particularly migrant women, do not take up benefits entitlements at the same rate as British/Irish nationals. In addition, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, has revealed that the UK is seeking to curb EU migrants benefit entitlements and in doing so “we [the Government] are trying to change the rules so that it can be a much tougher test about the period they [EU citizens] spend here and the commitment they make to the UK.” At the moment, the European Commission is currently engaged in infringement proceedings against the UK in relation to its current residency test. More worryingly, in recent months the Coalition Government has taken practical hostile measures, such as negative advertising campaigns, to deter migrants from Bulgaria and Romania from coming to the UK.

These recent developments in relation to welfare reform coupled with an overhaul of the UK’s immigration laws clearly illustrates that in this era of austerity, the black and minority ethnic communities living in the UK have become scapegoats. This is something that Janez Lenarcic (OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)) has warned against in the joint statement referred to above. It was also warned that this could lead to the proliferation of hate crimes and racist attacks, which is particularly concerning since a recent report from NICEM revealed that sufficient measures have not yet been taken in Northern Ireland to safeguard against institutional racism.

In his message today, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated that racism is a “threat to stability and a grave violation of human rights” and since stability is something that the UK seems to be actively striving for in this time of economic austerity, NICEM reiterates the Secretary General’s call to world leaders to “recommit to ending racial discrimination and realising our vision of justice, equality and freedom from fear for all”.