Novembre 11, 2015

Fear of the other

Fear of the other

Imagine being at the airport, ready to take your flight. You are waiting for checking in with all the other passengers, when a police officer approaches you. There is no particular reason he does so, he just stops, forcing you to go to a separate room for additional controls. If you wonder why, he answers: ‘It’s the procedure.’


Although you have nothing to hide, you have to demonstrate to be innocent. Even if there is no reason for the other passengers to be suspicious, since the police officer looks exactly at you, they may start thinking of you as a risk. Eventually, after an unwarranted scrutiny, the police officer lets you go. ‘Sorry for the inconvenience, you can go now,’ he says. Angry because of the unfair treatment, now you join the queue again.


Does something like this happen to you often? In Europe, the response to this question is often determined by the colour of the skin, the ethnicity and other apparent traits. Episodes like this are not simple inconveniences. They are what experts call forms of ethnic profiling.


Ethnic profiling means the practice of law enforcement mostly done on the basis of a person’s perceived ethnicity and race. It is generally applied in the context of domestic policing, immigration bordering and more recently in counter-terrorism operations.


Even though there is nothing new about ethnic profiling, the abuse of this practice in the past years has raised many questions regarding human rights trade-off. The 2011 Human Rights Watch The root of Humiliation – Abusive identity Check in France casts lights on the way through which the use of identity check affects emotionally and mentally the recipients, who are often stigmatized as ‘untrustworthy’. This affects the whole society. Specifically, the relation between police and minority groups. Control after control, minorities feel increasingly insecure. Eventually, they tend to disenfranchise from central state power.


Someone may wonder whether there are arguments endorsing an extensive use of ethnic profiling. Ethnic profiling is considered as a necessary measure to prevent security threats – in particular terrorism. Counter-terrorism narrative feeds the idea that no matter how advanced our security technologies are, terrorists will always manage to find their way out. Therefore, standard security measures are not enough to block terrorism and additional controls are required.


Now, someone else may wonder whether ethnic profiling brings about significant improvements in the overall security. A quick look around shows that this strategy is not as good as expected in maintaining stability. Moreover, evidence shows that massive identity checks, based on skin colours, ethnicity, national origins or religion, have a negative impact on the society.



There is the tendency to perceive ethnic profiling as a natural procedure rather than as a violation of basic rights. Now, limitations and controls of ethnic profiling are getting more and more attention in the international agenda. Nevertheless, abolishing ethnic profiling is a complex challenge; one that needs cooperation among national governments in law enforcement. This is what, for instance, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance points out in a report presented to the General Assembly in April 2015:


‘Racial and ethnic profiling in law enforcement constitutes a violation of human rights for the individuals and groups targeted by these practices, because of its fundamentally discriminatory nature and because it exacerbates discrimination already suffered as a result of ethnic origin or minority status (…) Legislative measures are central to any strategy to combat discrimination and racism by law enforcement agencies; for this reason, States that have not enacted specific legislation outlawing the use of racial and ethnic profiling are encouraged to consider doing so.’


Therefore, ethnic profiling is a violation of basic human rights, such as the right to equal treatment and the right to non-discrimination. Moreover, it affects the full realization of other correlated human rights, like freedom of movement, right to privacy and right to security. Simultaneously, at the European level, there have been several bodies fighting against ethnic profiling. One of them is the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), a human rights body of the Council of Europe that monitors manifestation of racism and intolerance across member states. Through reports and recommendations to member states, ECRI has strongly condemned the abuse of ethnic profiling and called for the prohibition of this practice by law.


Moreover, ethnic profiling does not even reduce crimes. The Open Society Institute has demonstrated that this practice has a counterproductive effect. First, it is an inefficient allocation of already scarce law enforcement resources. By focusing on group features considered to be evidence of a public menace, there is the risk to victimize innocents, missing those people who do not really fit the profile. Secondly, in the targeted communities, it affects trust towards the law enforcement communities, with a significant impact on the opportunities for cooperation.


Today, most of the ethnic profiling in Europe takes place in the name of immigration controls. It might take different forms, from ID checks, data mining, stop and search, interviews, etc. Yet, ethnic profiling is not a European invention at all. Since 9/11, the US have been using ethnic profiling constantly. Not to say Israel, where ethnic profiling is routine in airports and in public spaces. The use of ethnic profiling in everyday life has sharpened the division between the Jew majority and other minorities living in the territory, particularly the Palestinians. It has also increased the level of mistrust, deteriorating the already fragile social equilibrium and increasing radicalization. The same can be projected at the EU level, where ethnic profiling remains pervasive. The lack of a specific legal framework to combat this practice, together with the lack of viable alternative measures to maintain security, is for sure damaging the image of the community. More than that, it limits the process of integration. Moreover, it is not making us safer, but more and more suspicious and intolerant.

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About Cristina Cardarelli

Cristina Cardarelli

Cristina Cardarelli has a strong background in International Relations, with a focus on human rights. She holds a MSc in International Relations Theory from LSE and a MA in Human rights and Democracy in the MENA region from EIUC and she is developing her expertise in migration and refugees issues. In the past years, she has collaborated with different NGOs in South Asia and worked as trainee at the European Parliament, DG EPRS. She has also worked as Assistant Campaigns Coordinator in a NGO based in Paris, helping the coordination of international human rights campaigns in Europe. As human right researcher, she has operated in Palestine as part of her MA, in collaboration with Birzeit University, and in Jordan, where she focused on the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on local municipalities. She is a pro-bono researcher and active supporter of the Refugee Right Data Project (RRDP), a new UK-based NGO whose aim is to fill information gaps relating to refugees and displaced people in Europe by conducting independent field research. As RRDP researcher, she has worked in Calais and Greece and contributed to the advocacy strategy mostly in Italy. She has recently concluded the UN fellowship Programme, where she worked as Project Officer for the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) in Burkina Faso.

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