Ethnic minorities face climate of fear, says race watchdog

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The Independent Online

Ethnic minorities face a "climate of fear and suspicion", with Muslims, asylum-seekers and refugees bearing the brunt of growing hostility to immigrants, an investigation into racial prejudice in Britain has concluded.

Ethnic minorities face a "climate of fear and suspicion", with Muslims, asylum-seekers and refugees bearing the brunt of growing hostility to immigrants, an investigation into racial prejudice in Britain has concluded.

A Europe-wide human rights watchdog noted the high numbers of attacks on minorities and said that anti-Muslim discrimination had intensified in the four years since the 11 September attacks. It criticised "negative attitudes" among the police to blacks and Asians, the disproportionate number of non-white prisoners and the exploitation of "racist and xenophobic discourse" by the far right.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), set up by EU heads of state to investigate racism and xenophobia, denounced the use of "provocative, sensationalist and sometimes outright racist language" in the reporting of asylum and immigration.

As it delivered its bleak assessment, the Government promised a fresh drive to sell the benefits of economic migration to voters in an effort to draw the poison out of the issue.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, has told his ministers he was dismayed at the prominence that immigration and asylum took during the election campaign and is determined it should not happen again.

The ECRI acknowledged efforts by the Government to build links between communities and to promote racial equality. But it concluded: "In spite of initiatives taken, members of ethnic and religious minority groups continue to experience racism and discrimination.

"Asylum-seekers and refugees are particularly vulnerable, partly as a result of changes in asylum policies and of the tone of the debate around the adoption of such changes.

"Members of the Muslim communities also experience prejudice and discrimination, especially in connection with the implementation of legislation and policies against terrorism."

The commission called on ministers to examine again the impact of anti-terror legislation, which had "considerably contributed to a climate of fear and suspicion around ethnic and religious minority communities and in particular around Muslim communities".

Following complaints from Asian leaders, it demanded a fresh look at the use by police of "stop and search" powers.

The ECRI registered its alarm over the "considerable and steady increase" in anti-Semitic incidents in Britain. It said it was worried by the "high levels of hostility, discrimination and disadvantage" encountered by Gypsy and traveller communities.

It also said it was worried by the success of the British National Party, which "resorted to openly racist and xenophobic propaganda", in building "considerable local support bases in certain areas". It suggested that the Government could consider outlawing such organisations.

The ECRI said there were still high numbers of attacks on members of ethnic minorities. It pointed to a 12.4 per cent increase in the number of people arrested for racially motivated offences in 2003 compared with the previous year.

The commission registered its concern over the growing "disproportion between ethnic minority and other prisoners" and, although it recognised progress by the police, it said there was "still evidence of negative attitudes in the police service".

Paul Goggins, a Home Office minister, said the report had recognised advances that the Government had made in tackling racism. He said legislation was in the pipeline banning incitement to religious hatred and establishing a powerful single Commission for Equality and Human Rights. "Through these and other measures our intention is that every individual, regardless of ethnicity or faith, should be able to live free of fear, discrimination and intolerance."

The report coincided with a Government decision to drop plans to build accommodation centres for asylum-seekers, including a scheme at Bicester, Oxfordshire, which has already cost £18m. Efforts to identify other sites for centres would be abandoned. Tony McNulty, the Immigration minister, said that the policy had been ditched because of sharp falls in numbers of asylum-seekers and a fresh emphasis on the speedy return of failed claimants.

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