Hate crimes in the European Union are on the rise and people of colour, especially Muslims, have been increasingly targeted in these crimes. But institutionalised racism, where no crimes are necessarily committed, is just as prevalent, and harmful.
There is a growing reach and liberty of racism in Europe. People of colour, quite frankly, and anyone resembling a Muslim (disregarding the fact that one cannot look like a Muslim) are the prime targets of this growing phenomena.
A three-leg journey from Paris, France, to Antwerp, Belgium and onwards to Eindhoven in the Netherlands, served as a crude wakeup call.
On this journey I was accompanied by a Jordanian Arab friend living in Paris, who holds a 10-year residency card. We were travelling by bus; at the door, the conductor asked to see our tickets and ID. I handed him my e-ticket and my passport, and my companion, Fares*, was asked the same. He handed the conductor his ticket and residency card.
The Dutch man began to yell – as I was already in the bus, I rushed back out.
"You are not allowed to travel with this card, it only allows you to live here," the driver said.
"You have to respect the laws of this country otherwise we will send you back where you came from – I will let you pass, but next time this won't happen," he added in a half-yell.
However, taken directly from the official European Union website, "If you have a valid residence permit from one of those Schengen countries, it is equivalent to a visa. You may need a national visa to visit non-Schengen countries."
Fares stared blankly at the man, nodding his head. He told me that as his brother lives in Belgium he has made the same trip several times during the year and that he generally does not have a problem, except the occasional racist.
We were on our way, three hours in, we stopped for a short break in the French city of Lille. Additional passengers came onto the bus for the second leg of the journey. As they did, I exited the rank and claustrophobic bus to smoke a cigarette. I stood facing the door of the bus and watched passengers enter. A young woman of colour was at the front of the line, and handed the conductor her ticket and residency card. Another racist rant ensued, almost verbatim.
We continued the journey to Antwerp. As we left the bus, Fares' brother, Fahed*, waited on the side with a smile – and a frown. Happy to see his brother, he waved at us excitedly. After a total of one minute, he said, "The police just questioned me because I was sitting in the car waiting."
Adding that they even explicitly stated, when probed, that he was profiled. The police said, "An Arab man in a car at a bus station? Of course we will question you."
Interestingly enough, a news report published by Reuters in March this year highlights that in the entirety of Brussels, the capital of Belgium, there are only two Muslim officers.
On the drive onwards to the Netherlands, Fahed, a Belgian national, explains that this is the least aggressive incident in some time. He adds that he is eager to leave and return to Jordan, a place with limited liberties, as a result of the racism he experiences. This is not just a matter of personal experiences or anecdotes, but a matter of institutional racism in a number of European states.
While educated and eager, the prospects of finding full-time employment for people like Fares or Fahed are grim to say the least. Minorities are often marginalised and face difficultly finding a sustainable means of living. Factoring in the daily discrimination and the unjustified suspicion from authorities, life becomes quite bleak.
The two days spent between Belgium and the Netherlands was quite pleasant and for a brief time, we were not suspicious. However, despite this, there is indeed a possibly more muted form of racism in the Netherlands.
A report published this month indicates that, based on long-term research, "Job applicants with convictions for violence are more likely to be taken on than those with Arabic surnames, criminologists have found." It adds, "Applicants with a violent past and a Dutch name stood a better chance than those with an Arabic name but no history of violence, said researcher Chantal van den Berg."
Returning to Paris was eventful. On the border between Belgium and France border control officers are stationed where they stop and randomly search and question travellers.
Unsurprisingly, our bus was stopped. The officers mounted and started questioning passengers. It seemed understandable as the departure port was in Netherlands.
The officers casually asked passengers, "Why did you visit the Netherlands? Who did you stay with? What did you do? Do you have any contraband?"
The officer reached our seats, and we handed him our ID's. He questioned us, and was suspiciously suspicious. He asked us to disembark, and so we did – a female officer then asked to see our luggage.
In my experience, I have never quite seen anyone go through a suitcase so thoroughly. "If you have any contraband give it to us now and we will let you go," the officer said confidently.
"We have no contraband," I replied.
He insisted, "If you just tell me now, you won't get into any trouble."
The female officer dumped all the contents of the luggage onto the ground and searched the suitcase itself, she also seemed a little too interested in what we were hiding in our socks and dirty laundry.
Thirty minutes went by before they allowed us back onto the bus where we were graced with the aggressive attention of our fellow passengers.
The whole experience, which all took place within 4 days, shook the notion that all are equal in liberal democracies – right out of me.
The entire Middle East and North Africa region is faced with an extremely unpleasant choice – live with discrimination in the West (if you are permitted entry that is) or live under oppression in your own homes, the choice is yours.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
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