The majority of minorities: a story about discrimination

by María López Benito

A view of participants in the General Assembly Hall during the opening ceremony of the Fifteenth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Credits: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

There is a collective facing additional threats in the context of forced displacement: the minorities.

The Geneva Convention of 1951 recognizes in the right of asylum for all people “persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, belonging to a certain social group or political opinions” and prohibits discrimination in the application of this provision, as set forth in Article 3: “The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin”.

Discrimination has different versions regardless of being related to a refugee group. It can be direct or indirect: the direct relates to the discrimination of a particular person or group, such as not renting apartments to immigrants. The indirect discrimination is associated with a disadvantage in the application of seemingly neutral criteria (for example, height requirements for police service). In this regard, the Council of Europe warns about structural discrimination, maintained through norms, routines and attitudes that block the objective of equal opportunities.

Some examples of this discrimination and other types of intolerance are racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Gypsyism or religious intolerance. The growth of Nazi-reasoning trends is worrying, for example the relation established between these groups and public health or safety issues. These stereotypes, which manipulate the public speech through the simplification of complex problems, promote discrimination based on unfounded beliefs or isolated cases, feeding shameful political actions such as the extradition of Roma people in France (2010), a decision that 65% of French citizens agreed with[1].

There is an extensive legal framework in International and European Law for the protection of minorities. The main legal instrument is the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities that links the term minority with “national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities”. The reality shows that there is no homogenous term for defining this concept and that brings up the obstacles to implement any protection. The defence of national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities is of unquestionable importance. Nevertheless it is also important to fight discrimination based on gender, disability or sexual orientation, but the European and international legislation does not develop this particular protection.

The main and most developed criterion for allowing international protection is nationality. The UN Working Group for Minorities recognizes it; although it points out that there might be minorities historically settled in a territory that may have more rights than the “new” minorities. In this regard, there are several instruments in international law to guarantee equality in the field of international protection regardless of nationality: the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the Convention relating the status of stateless persons, the Convention relating the status of refugees and the Declaration on the human rights of individuals who are not nationals of the country in which they live.

One of the problems for receiving protection is that citizenship is often denied to members of certain ethnic, religious or linguistic groups; this means that the first discrimination comes from the lack of national recognition. This is the explanation of many cases of statelessness[2] in the world, which are frequently the consequence of new independent states that do not recognize the nationality of certain groups.

The United Nations has tried to develop a conceptual framework to protect the rights of minorities in three areas: protection of identity, non-discrimination and participation. In international law there are several instruments where the rights of minorities are protected regardless of nationality.

Notwithstanding these instruments, the European Commission has noticed that there are Member States failing to fulfil their obligations: many of them are not transposing the requirements of the Framework Decision for fighting against racism and xenophobia through the criminal law (2008), since they do not recognize the racial motivation of many crimes; the Equal Treatment Directive leaves the definition of protected characteristics or the nature of the sanctions to the discretion of the States; and regarding third-country nationals, the European Union has developed the 2003 Directive on long-term residents, which has been invoked in the Court of Justice of the European Union, but the jurisprudence focuses the cases on individual rights, not on minorities.

All these deficiencies in the protection of minorities come from the lack of monitoring procedures with respect to the rights recognized in International and European Law, but they are also linked to the lack of organizational capacity of minorities that often suffer from problems of transparency or self-censorship[3], blocking their participation in the public scene. United Nations recognises that an optimum level of identity protection can only be achieved through an inclusive and participatory vision of minorities. Their inclusion in the public space, making political decisions and taking part to them through consultative mechanisms is vital for the development of solutions adapted to their realities.

There are some exceptions to these protection deficiencies, as several Member States have developed very useful instruments against discrimination: funds to support minority national cultures (Slovakia), Anti-Gypsyism Commissions (Sweden) or the Council of the Official Languages ​​(Spain), but there is still a long way ahead.

The refugees belonging to minorities or indigenous groups face several additional challenges in the host state: the difficult access to information necessary for their participation is one of them. Problems of language or lack of representation reduce self-identification, which is the possibility of defining themselves as minorities, since they are not aware of whether it is safe for them or not to be identified as part of that minority. In this area, the efforts of public authorities guaranteeing the conditions for these refugees to assume their own recognition are crucial: avoiding pressure and preserving their security.

Their protection must be based on rights and inclusive programs, offering the same opportunities to all refugees without discrimination: access to basic services, for example, is one of the activities in which differences cannot be permitted.

The maintenance of identity is another key pillar for minority protection and indigenous refugees, facilitating the possibility to develop their culture, language, religion and customs with freedom. There are numerous normative texts that protect the rights of minorities, however, language and traditions can be at risk during the displacement. It happens with small groups that are separated from those who promote their cultures, such as religious leaders, teachers etc. The authorities must also facilitate the availability of public spaces to practice these cultures, promote integration programs with bidirectional content, for the majority refugees on minority cultures and vice versa; and guarantee the use of their mother tongue.

Minority and indigenous refugees are also exposed to discrimination, poverty, trafficking or exclusion during displacement. These situations usually come from their own communities, where they can be discriminated before the migration movement. To face this circumstance, the groups of migrants must be analysed to know their condition from a gender, age and diversity perspective; and promote their participation. In order to address these problems, the collection of data is crucial: participation or discrimination are details that must be known to get a real diagnosis about minority and indigenous refugees. Nowadays, this official compilation mechanism does not exist.

To sum up, both International and European Law have developed instruments in the field of non-discrimination. The problems arising from its inefficiency come from the lack of monitoring competence of the European Union.

International regulations recognize the participation of minorities, the promotion of their cultures and languages, ​​and the protection of their activities as crucial for their integration. However, the effectiveness of the instruments at the service of these objectives is not ensured, as the public authorities are not working on their implementation.

The current reality is that the rights of any refugee are not correctly protected in the Member States of the European Union, regardless of whether they are minorities, stateless, women or minors. There is a massive ineffectiveness in the application of Humanitarian Law, also from a European scope. The development of a coherent, homogeneous and integrated regulation throughout the European Union is vital for the correct application of non-discrimination principle, such as: the official collection of data, training programs based on tolerance, the facilitation of public spaces for the practice of minority cultures, the promotion of cultural identification based on institutional respect, bidirectional education, the homogenous application of sanction codes for hate crimes etc.

The development of standards in the areas where the European Union cannot monitor the results generates a feeling of “incomplete project” among citizens. The political will of the Member States and their mutual recognition as capable of developing and applying fair and safe rules for all of them, would end the continuous suspicions between them that block an integrated and complete advance of the European project.

[1] Council of Europe: Manual for Human Rights Education with young people: Discrimination and intolerance.

[2] Stateless persons are those who are not considered as nationals by any State according to their legislation.

[3] Often, when a group is part of the decision-making process, it does not criticize its application, even if it is unfair, especially in relation to its own activities and secure access to financing.

María López Benito
Spanish Political Scientist. Master in European Studies. PhD student in Migration, Security and Human Rights. Expert on Migration and International Relations. Rural Development Consultant in an European Project based on international trade with Portugal. Extensive experience of collaborating with the Socialist Party of Spain. Former trainee of Socialists and Democrats working in the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.

1 Comment

  1. Very good article! Special attention to “It is also important to fight discrimination based on gender, disability or sexual orientation, but the European and international legislation does not develop this particular protection” . I think its time yo start fighting un this way!

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