In 2019, Unia saw a continued upward trend in the number of reports and cases concerning discrimination. ‘The number of reports was 13.2% higher than in 2018, while the caseload increased by 6.9%. On social media, we are seeing harsher language, about people with disabilities, Muslims and refugees, for example’, says Unia director Els Keytsman. ‘There is a normalisation of hate speech on social media, as well as on the street.’
This trend is discussed in the 2019 Unia annual report. Last year, Unia opened 2,343 cases, compared to 2,192 in 2018. In total, last year there were 8,478 reports of discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes, as compared to 7,489 reports in 2018. The number of reports has almost doubled in five years’ time.
What is particularly striking is the increasingly harsh tone of the language used on social media and on the street. ‘Following the elections of May 26, 2019, inhibitions seem to have gone out the window’, said Keytsman. ‘Some saw the results of the elections as licence to spew their uncensored views. The societal debate has become harsher, cruder and more aggressive in tone.’
That trend appears to be continuing in 2020. ‘For example, in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd in the USA, there have been a lot of polemics recently about racism and police actions in Belgium. That, too, has been accompanied by new instances of hate speech. Fortunately, we have also seen a counterreaction: an outpouring of citizens’ solidarity actions calling for measures to combat structural racism.’
Following the arson in the asylum centre in Bilzen in November last year and failed attempts to arrest migrants on the Belgian coast, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès called for the development of a ‘national racism action plan’. Unia hopes that 2020 will be the year in which this promise, which has been around since 2001, will finally become a reality.
Other events that have left a mark in the past year include the large-scale actions by police forces on sites for Roma and caravan dwellers, the publication of a (long-awaited) royal decree on affirmative action and the jury trial on the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
A breakdown of the data on cases in 2019 reveals that cases on the grounds of racial criteria remain the largest group (951). Cases concerning disability are in second place (614). Other significant categories include cases concerning religious & philosophical beliefs (336) and sexual orientation (133).
Unia takes action in a range of different areas. The areas of employment, housing and transport and bank and insurance products are approximately equally represented, with 657 and 641 cases respectively. But there is plenty of discriminatory behaviour in other areas, too: media (346 cases) and education (308) are fairly significantly represented. Police & Justice account for 81 cases.
In 2019, an out-of-court settlement was reached for nearly 33% of the ‘well-founded cases’. That means that a solution was ultimately found based on reconciliation or negotiations. In 18 cases, Unia took the matter to court. Of these, six cases concerned online hate speech.
Last year, age discrimination accounted for 143 cases. ‘If we look at the area of employment, we see that the recruitment process leads to many problems (for example, at the company Skeyes, formerly Belgocontrol); the problems are greatest for people between the ages of 45 and 64. Young people more often complain about difficulty accessing housing. And older people sometimes find that they are unable to take out insurance or have to pay excessively high insurance premiums.’
In terms of prevention, Unia also had an impact last year. For example, the organisation is working hard to help address discrimination on the job market. The sectors have a key role to play here, which is why signing a protocol for cooperation with employers is an important step. ‘Our online learning tool eDiv.be was used by 4,000 new unique users. It includes an inspiration menu for companies that want to develop a prevention policy. We have also created the ‘quickscan’, a questionnaire that enables a company to assess its prevention policy in order to improve it.’
Unia is also working on greater inclusivity for people with disabilities. In various recommendations and reports, we explain what kind of barriers there are and how they can be removed.
As a national human rights institution (status B), Unia submitted a parallel report to the UN on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In the report, Unia focuses on a range of topics, such as the impact of antiterrorism measures on human rights, discrimination and racist violence, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, internment, and the need to amend certain articles of law.