19th Sep 2020


George Floyds of Europe also can't breathe

  • Momodou Malcolm Jallow is a Swedish member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Photo: Jessica Segerberg)

Europe is ethnically diverse: it always was and always will be. This is a good thing. With citizens whose ancestry is drawn from all over the world, our continent is richer at a cultural, human and economic level, and overall a more interesting, pleasant place to live.

We may all have different religious traditions, different histories, but we share the same future.

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But if we look at the everyday lived experience of European citizens and residents of colour, particularly those who live in major cities, we realise that there are big problems.

Too often, ethnicity, religion and history are markers of exclusion and disenfranchisement. This is especially true for an estimated 15 million people of African descent in Europe.

Numbers and histories vary considerably across countries: their trajectories into Europe can be traced to former colonial relationships, economic migration, or people seeking sanctuary. Increasing numbers were born and raised in Europe. 

People of African descent are one of the largest minorities in Europe, and yet there is not one single European or national policy dedicated to addressing the specific form of racism they face.

Afrophobia is a form of racism that is fuelled by historical abuses and negative stereotyping and leads to the exclusion and dehumanisation of people of African descent.

Afrophobia refers to anti-Black racism and it correlates to historically repressive structures of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

The lack of adequate policies is increasingly problematic, as people of African descent experience systematic discrimination in almost all areas of public life, including access to employment, education, and healthcare.

Black people are disproportionately represented in European criminal justice systems. They are often subject to discriminatory policing.

They are overwhelmingly the victims of sometimes fatal police violence. For these injustices and inequality, we have not yet received proper accountability or redress.

We are also regularly subjected to racist stereotypes and caricatures, which serve to supposedly justify the systematic discrimination we have faced.

This applies to the 5th December Saint Nicholas celebrations in the Netherlands and Belgium, where the racist practice of "black-facing" is seen by many as a core part of the tradition, to be defended at all costs.

A debate is on-going in those countries on whether this tradition should be abandoned. It is high time to do so, as this is affecting us and our children, who face bullying, psychological and sometimes even physical violence.  

The situation in Europe is part of a wider picture that is highly concerning, with brutal police violence, the enslavement, sale, and physical and sexual abuse of Black people in Libya, and thousands of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean.

It is necessary to paint the situation of people of African descent in its entirety: in order to fully address racist discrimination and violence, we must look at their deeper causes, wherever they originate.

In recent months, two facts have made the general public more aware and concerned about these challenges.

Firstly, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected people of African descent disproportionately, with higher mortality rates and more difficult access to medical counselling and healthcare in general.

Figures from countries including the United Kingdom and my own country, Sweden, show a particularly harsh situation for groups with a migrant background, against a backdrop of difficulties for everyone.

As for other forms of discrimination and injustice, the pandemic has both made them more visible, and exacerbated them.

Secondly, the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis in the United States.

This acted as a real wake-up call for people on both sides of the Atlantic, triggering protests against institutional racism, and more generally against the systemic racism that poisons our societies and violates the rights of millions of people.

US protests

The scale and intensity of the protests illustrates a deep sense of frustration and pain, which Europe for the longest time has shown no regard for. The usual silence and assumption of special entitlement from European leaders are not working any more, as this is not a moment, but a movement.

A movement that is deeply and permanently committed to the values of justice, human rights and the rule of law. Not in words, but in action.

As a guardian of these values, the Council of Europe is obliged to ensure that member States recognise the existence of institutional and structural racism, and takes political action to address the consequences of this scourge, which continues to affect millions of European citizens.

"I want people across the world and UN leaders to see the video of my brother, to listen to his cry for help, and I want them to answer his cry," said Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd. "I appeal to the United Nations to help him. Help me. Help us. Help black men and women in America."

There are George Floyds throughout Europe. And just like him, we cannot breathe.

It is time for leaders in Europe, as well as the US, to recognise their blind spots and to listen to our demand for justice, equality and human rights. They have a chance, and they have a choice - so we demand to see changes.

When we choose to be silent in the face of bigotry, we create division, rather than unity, and ultimately, we undermine the basic values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law that Europe is built on.

We must act quickly, firmly and collectively, not to lose ground in the fight against racism and intolerance.

Author bio

Momodou Malcolm Jallow is a Swedish member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog, and its general rapporteur on combating racism and intolerance.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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