Friday, October 25, 2013

Roma couple declared guilty by Finland's Iltasanomat -- until proven innocent

Presumption of innocence is a fundamental right of accused persons recognized in many European nations. The principle demands that persons accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty. This right applies to the European majority population, but in cases involving Roma - Europe's most discriminated minority group - the presumption of innocence is shelved by the media and the court of public opinion.

News of a child found in a Roma camp in Greece in the custody of a Roma couple took the media by storm. Major international news outlets had catchy headlines about a blonde, blue-eyed "mystery girl" found in a Roma camp. Meanwhile Iltäsanomat in Finland came up with a more dramatic headline that declared the Roma couple guilty of kidnapping before they were charged.

News outlets like Huffington Post and Daily Mail used words like "abducted" and "kidnapped" in quotes -- thereby showing uncertainty. But Iltasanomat appeared convinced that the girl was kidnapped.

The Roma are Europe's most discriminated minority group and they face segregation, intolerance and violence in many European countries. Unlike the majority of Europe's population, they are stigmatized and are usually condemned by the media and the court of public opinion before full investigation of alleged crimes.

In my opinion, Iltasanomat's headline (see above screenshot) reflects prejudice and discrimination against the Roma. The tabloid, pending the outcome of investigation into the case, described the girl as kidnapped -- thereby indirectly declaring the Roma couple involved guilty -- in violation of the couple's right to presumption of innocence: a fundamental civil right laid down in article 48 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Irrespective of the seriousness of the alleged crime, I believe the Roma couple involved reserve the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Their lawyer said they adopted the child from her biological mother - although the adoption, according to the lawyer, was "non-legal". The couple have been charged with abduction and document fraud. The public and media should wait for the outcome of the investigation and legal proceedings. A Bulgarian woman said she left a child with a family in Greece years ago. Conclusions should not be arrived at simply because the accused are Roma. More importantly, the "blonde angel" case should not have a knock-on effect against Roma across Europe.

Members of the Roma community and human rights advocates (including me) fear witch hunt against the minority group across Europe as a result of the Greece case. A Finnish journalist questioned, in a widely read and recommended opinion piece (in Finnish), whether or not the response by the media and authorities, including Interpol would have been the same if the child found in the Roma camp was not blonde and blue-eyed.

Personally, I welcome the outcry and coordinated international cooperation to find the biological parents of the child found in Greece. However, response by the media and authorities should be the same in every case -- irrespective of how victims or suspects look like. There should be no double standards.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Was appointment of Finland's Ombudsman for Minorities discriminatory?

Discrimination against dark-skinned people and perceived foreign nationals in Finland was thrust into the limelight by a groundbreaking documentary by Yle's Eyewitness (Silminnäkijä) TV programme which sparked a police investigation filed by Eva Biaudet, Finland's Ombudsman for Minorities -- whose appointment in May 2010 was surrounded by controversy and allegations of discrimination against rival applicants.

Following the broadcast of Undercover Immigrant TV documentary which documented and revealed flagrant incidents of discrimination in Finland, and the request for police investigation into the incidents lodged by the Ombudsman for Minorities, Iltalehti started a discussion in its online discussion forum about discrimination in Finland. The tabloid asked readers in the forum if they have noticed ethnic discrimination in Finland.

The first response was in the affirmative. According to an anonymous visitor there was ethnic discrimination in the selection process of the Ombudsman for Minorities -- in which a "weaker candidate", Eva Biaudet, was selected over a more qualified candidate of Kurdish origin.

Another commenter suggested that before an investigation into the findings of Yle, there should be an investigation into whether Eva Biaudet is entitled to demand an investigation.

According to Helsingin Sanomat, Eva Biaudet was named Ombudsman through special dispensation -- despite the fact that she did not have a Masters degree which is normally required for the position. A rival applicant, Husein Muhammed, met the requirements for the job but was not appointed.

In my opinion, it is plausible to conclude - especially after watching the Undercover Immigrant documentary - that the appointment of Eva Biaudet was discriminatory -- or at least a blatant show of favoritism. She did not meet the job requirement and in my view there was no need for her to be granted "special dispensation" when there were other qualified candidates. Special consideration would have been appropriate only if there were no other qualified applicants, but there were reportedly 31 applicants, 29 of whom had the required academic qualification; 5 were invited for an interview.

Personally, I think Biaudet does a good job protecting ethnic minorities in Finland from discrimination. I also think as Finland's Special Rapporteur on Human Trafficking her office does a remarkable job in the fight against human trafficking in Finland. But I share the view that her appointment was questionable. Regardless, I applaud Eva Biaudet's prompt response to the revelation by Yle. Without delay, she requested an investigation into incidents of blatant discrimination well-documented by Eyewitness. The programme revealed that skin color makes a difference in Finland in the job market, in the search for housing and in nightclub queues. Employers outrightly favor Finnish job applicants over immigrants or perceived foreigners.

It remains to be seen whether or not the employers, bars and nightclubs caught red-handed in the act of ethnic discrimination would be brought to justice. Mindful of the fact that Finland ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination way back in July 1970, the country has a long-standing obligation under international and national law to protect all persons within its borders from the sort of incidents documented by Yle.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Skin color matters in Finland, Yle hidden camera shows

Dark-skinned people in Finland struggle with discrimination on a daily basis. On week days many struggle in vain to find work related to their studies -- or even unpaid internships. Some of those who have given up seeking skilled jobs are sometimes mistreated, disrespected and exploited in odd jobs for which they are overqualified. On weekends many who go out to nightclubs and bars suffer indignities and rejection in the hands of doormen and security guards.

Yle TV programme scheduled to air on 17 October 2013 at 8 PM (GMT+2) on Yle TV2 uncovers discrimination in everyday life in Finland. According to the programme, skin color makes a difference in Finland when looking for accommodation, in the job market and in nightclub queues.

Yle sent out three men - a native-born Finn, an immigrant from Russia and one Somali - to find out how discrimination targets immigrants in everyday life in Finland. According to Yle, all three young men have lived in the country for a long time and speak the local language well, all three had the same cover story related to work experience, income and education. All three applied for a job, applied for accommodation and tried to get into a nightclub under the same conditions.

The programme reveals that at a nightclub, the Somali was denied access by the doorman, while one of the white test team members was let in. At another nightclub the Somali and the Russian immigrant were denied access on grounds that their Finnish driving licences presented as identification were insufficient. The Finnish team member was let in with only a driving licence. The three young men sought the same ten jobs. The native-born Finn was invited to two interviews, the Russian was invited to two and the Somalian was invited to none. A search for rental accommodation also left the Somalian discriminated.

According to the journalist behind the programme, the experiment recorded "clear evidence of discrimination". The journalist - described by Yle as a "white-skinned Englishman" - was shocked by the results of the experiment.

Personally, I am not shocked by the findings. As a person of African descent who has lived in Finland for over four years, I have faced my share of discrimination. For instance, a couple of years ago, a group of friends and I were denied entry into a nightclub in Helsinki. Of course we thought it was discriminatory and refused to leave the queue. The doorman said he would call the police if don't leave. Believing that the police won't allow discrimination, we implored the doorman to call. The police came and told us - to our surprise and disappointment - that doormen have the right to deny us entry. They suggested that we should find another club. I've also been denied access to a nightclub on grounds that I didn't have a [winter] jacket.

In another shocking incident which I experienced first-hand, a young man of Somali origin came out of a nightclub for a smoke. The doormen denied him access when he tried to return. When he insisted they restrained him on the ground and called the police. One of the guards had a knee on the Somali's head against concrete. When the police came, the Somali was handcuffed and taken into the police van.

In my view, the TV programme by Yle uncovers the plight of the average dark-skinned person in Finland. While it may shock some viewers, I am convinced that dark-skinned people who have lived in the country long enough will relate to the experience of the Somali in the programme and will not be surprised by the abysmal discrimination.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dismissal of MP James Hirvisaari isn't enough for Finns Party

Lawmakers are supposed to be law abiding citizens -- citizens who respect laws enacted by a democratic parliament. But the populist Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset) harbors members of parliament who have been convicted and fined by Finnish courts for inciting hatred, and members who make no secret of their extreme nationalist and Neo-Nazi affiliations. The party decided to kick out only one of its numerous controversial figures.

The opposition Perussuomalaiset that seems to thrive on xenophobic, Islamophobic and euro-skeptic rhetoric finally fired James Hirvisaari, one of the most controversial MPs in Finland's parliament. On 3 October 2013 news broke that the party intends to formally expel the MP for anti-party activities. The party confirmed the expulsion of the controversial MP the next day.

He was stripped of his party membership after it was confirmed that he took a Hitler-salute photo of a friend of his who visited him in parliament. Hirvisaari's visitor - who has a long criminal record - made a Hitler-salute in parliament's gallery and the MP was the man behind the camera -- in an act of apparent endorsement of a distasteful pose. The photo taken by James Hirvisaari was later posted online and precipitated his ouster from the Perussuomalaiset parliamentary group.

In my view, taking a photo of someone making a Nazi-salute in parliament is despicable and irresponsible -- Hirvisaari probably agrees, that's why he sent an apology to the speaker of Finland's parliament. However, it is not the only outrageous thing MP Hirvisaari has done. Previous misdeeds include the following:
  • He incited hatred against Muslims and was convicted of hate speech.
  • He compared homosexuality to a disability.
  • He refused to sack an aid of his who suggested that non-Finns should wear Nazi-style armbands to help police easily identify them.
  • He wrote that people from certain cultures are genetically wired to be rapists.
  • He argued that Finland is for Finns and that refugees and immigrants are social security hunters.
I welcome the dismissal of James Hirvisaari by the Finns Party. In my opinion the MP should have been fired a long time ago. Failure to do so contributed to the damaged reputation of the Finns Party. Hirvisaari did many things that would have long earned him a one way ticket out of the party - if the party didn't tolerate racism and hate-mongering. Some of his controversial colleagues like Jussi Halla-aho and Teuvo Hakkarainen still enjoy the confidence of the Finns Party.

The expulsion of Hirvisaari is a move in the right direction, but it is not enough to clean up the Perussuomalaiset brand. There are still numerous racist elements in the right-wing party who make no secret of their racist views and extreme nationalist affiliations. Many immigrants -- and some Finns I have spoken with believe the Perussuomalaiset opposition party is "racist". It will take more than the dismissal of one controversial MP to repair a severely damaged reputation.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

African leaders seek impunity while migrants die off Europe's shores

Barely a week after Italy registered its worst disaster involving African migrants off the coast of Lampedusa, the African Union convened in Ethiopia for its fifteenth extraordinary meeting to discuss an unrelated issue -- Africa's relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and a possible pull-out by African countries.

Divers in Italy have recovered more than 300 bodies of African migrants who died when a boat carrying them to Italy capsized off the coast of Lampedusa on 3 October 2013. European and Italian officials responded promptly to the disaster and Italy decided to hold a state funeral for the shipwreck migrants. The world is yet to hear from the African Union and African leaders, including officials from countries where the migrants originated.

Rather than convene a special meeting to discuss the plight of countless Africans fleeing the continent, the African Union convened a special two-day summit to discuss a possible pull-out from the ICC.

In my opinion, the decision by the African Union to discuss a pull-out from the ICC in the wake of the Lampedusa migrant boat disaster is misguided and shows that the African leaders are more interested in protecting themselves from prosecution for the worst crimes, including crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. Leaders who work in the interest of their people would rather convene a meeting to tackle a problem that claims the lives of thousands of their people, including women and children.

Another boat carrying more than 200 migrants reportedly capsized in the Mediterranean one week after the Lampedusa tragedy. Italian and Maltese ships and helicopters were scrambled to the scene to search and rescue surviving migrants - while African leaders were in Addis Ababa to condemn the ICC for targeting them. This, in my mind, is a disgrace and a clear case of selfishness and misplaced priorities demonstrated by African officials -- especially considering the fact that many of the migrants flee Africa due to bad governance, human rights violations and failed policies implemented by the same officials.

In my view, Africans will continue to embark on life-threatening journeys across the Mediterranean in search of safety and a better life for as long as lack of leadership persists in the African continent. African officials - many of whom are repressive and corrupt puppets of the West - need to stop focusing on themselves and work for the greater good of Africa and common Africans. The ICC at this point should be the least of their concerns -- mindful of extreme poverty, gender inequality, high infant mortality, poor maternal health, HIV/AIDS, malaria, food insecurity, corruption, human rights violations and the fact that according to the International Organization for Migration, 25,000 people fleeing Africa have died in the Mediterranean in the last 20 years, including 1,700 in 2012. [Source] If you ask me - in light of recent African deaths in the Mediterranean, the extraordinary plight of African migrants should have been top on the agenda of the fifteenth extraordinary session of the assembly of the African Union.

*Image: African Union

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Finland's population registry website excludes visible minorities

Finland is still very much a racially homogeneous country -- predominantly made up of white Finnish-speaking and Swedish-speaking people. The homogeneous nature of the population is reflected in most walks of life in the country where people of African descent or visible minorities are not represented or are relegated to the background. A look at the homepage of the population registry's website supports this assertion.

The website of the Population Register Centre (in Finnish: Väestörekisterikeskus) portrays a complete lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Finland. The last time I checked, photos displayed on the home page (see screenshot) of the website showed diversity in terms on gender, sex and age -- which is good. But ethnic or racial diversity was completely out of the picture despite the fact that Finland has visible minorities registered in the population register.

Finland has a total population of over 5 million people and it is estimated that the population will hit 5.5 million in 2015. As a member of Finnish society, I can attest to the fact that the country's population is racially diverse -- although a first look at the website of the population registry suggests otherwise. Even the website of Kela, the social insurance institute, shows a racially homogeneous Finland.

The population of Finland increased by 13,050 persons between January and July 2013 and the main reason for population growth was immigration. According to Statistics Finland's statistics on population structure, every tenth person aged 25 to 34 living permanently in Finland in 2012 was of foreign origin -- approximately 12 per cent of all persons with foreign origin were of African descent and about one-quarter were of Asian origin.

In my view, Finland's non-whites or so-called people of color have been relegated to the background and are not portrayed as part of the society. Many do not occupy prominent positions in public life as journalists, police officers, lawmakers, ministers or teachers. Visible minorities are not even portrayed as part of the society on national and governmental websites like that of Kela and Väestorekisterikeskus. It might take some time for visible minorities to occupy elevated positions in public life -- but I am convinced that simple changes in graphics and photographs on national and governmental websites will go a long way to show visible minorities that they are welcomed and accepted as part of the society.

In this age of information technology websites send resounding messages. The last time I checked, the website of Finland's population registry sent a disturbing message, in my interpretation, that visible minorities are not part of Finland's population structure. The population registry's home page should be updated to include racial and ethnic diversity that is representative of Finland's population structure.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Migrant deaths off Lampedusa point to lack of leadership

Lack of leadership and bad governance resulting in poverty and human rights violations force Africans to embark on high risk journeys in a bid to seek safety and a better life in Europe and elsewhere.

More than a hundred African migrants died (see photo of their coffins inside an airport hangar in Lampedusa) on Thursday 3 October 2013 after a boat carrying them to Europe sank off the coast of Lampedusa in southern Italy. More than 150 passengers of the boat were reportedly rescued and some 200 remained unaccounted for. The search for more bodies continues as of the time of this writing. It is believed that there were about 500 people on board the boat and according to the United Nations most of them were from Eritrea and Somalia. According to Italy's Minister of Interior, the boat came from Misrata, Libya.

The tragic death of African migrants off the coast of Lampedusa and the deafening silence of the African Union and African officials of the affecting countries in the wake of the disaster is a gruesome reminder that African leaders don't care about the plight of their people both at home and abroad.

Numerous boats carrying African migrants to Italy and other countries like Greece, Australia and New Zealand sink, but the tragedy off Lampedusa on Thursday 3 October is said to be one of the worst to occur off the Italian coast in recent years - prompting the Italian government to declare a national day of mourning in Italy for the victims. Thirteen Africans lost their lives in another boat wreck on Monday -- three days earlier.

The incident was described by some officials as a "European tragedy". Others termed it "Europe's failure".

Europe no doubt has a role to play in the tragedy. But the loss of lives, in my opinion, is an African tragedy and Africa's failure -- caused by lack of leadership and bad governance in the African continent. African countries are rich, but bad governance, corruption and repression in countries like Eritrea force Africans to embark on risky journeys across the Red Sea and the Mediterranean in search of safety and a better life.

In my assessment, the silence of the African Union and African leaders reveal that they are out of touch with the plight of their people. It is inconceivable that Italy declared a day of national mourning to mourn the loss of African lives and no African country did same -- not even Eritrea and Somalia from where most of the migrants originated. The silence of the authorities in the affected African countries - including Libya, the transit country - is, in the words of Pope Francis, "a disgrace". It is plausible to conclude that African leaders don't value African lives.

The  solution, in my view, to the numerous migration disasters involving Africans lies in Africa. Western countries should stop exploiting Africa's resources to the detriment of its people and stop propping up repressive puppets who serve western interests in the continent. Issues such as mass unemployment, human rights violations and lack of basic necessities that force people to embark on risky boat trips should be addressed by Africans in positions of power. Prospective migrants in transit countries like Libya should be sensitized about the dangers of embarking on trips that could be aptly described as "death traps". More importantly there should be a serious crackdown on human traffickers who organize such trips.

According to Frontex, more than 31,000 undocumented migrants arrived in the EU through the Mediterranean between January and September 2013.

*Photo: Yahoo

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Reluctance to exercise voting rights in Cameroon

The right to vote is a fundamental civil and political right. History tells us that many disenfranchised people around the world fought and died for the right to vote. But in Cameroon many people - especially the young - take voting rights for granted and never register to vote in elections, including presidential, municipal or parliamentary elections.

On 30 September 2013 Cameroonians took to the polls for parliamentary and municipal elections. I was able to have a feel of the situation on the ground on election day thanks to social media. A few of my Facebook friends voted and posted photos online while others expressed their lack of enthusiasm to vote.

A report on France 24 stated that 5.4 million voters headed to the polls and 29 parties had candidates in legislative elections. Mindful of the fact that Cameroon has a population of about 20 million, it is clear that many Cameroonians did not participate.

As a Cameroonian, I understand the lack of enthusiasm to vote. Elections in Cameroon have a long history of "irregularities" and [allegations of] fraud and electoral malpractices. Many Cameroonians believe the country's 80-year-old president has been in power since 1982 due to phony elections and a flawed electoral process that favors the ruling party. There are reports of cases where the names of known dead people appeared on voters' rolls. Elections Cameroon (ELECAM), the body responsible for organizing and supervising elections, is believed to be compromised since some of its board members appointed by the Head of State are reportedly affiliated to the ruling party. Some of them, including a former Minister of Social Affairs and a couple of former Vice Ministers are known regime loyalists.

There're compelling reasons for Cameroonians - especially youths who have known only one president in their lifetime - to be reluctant to vote. However, I believe the ruling party thrives on a disorganized and fragmented opposition as well as on boycotts by numerous voting-age Cameroonians. I therefore applaud all those who, despite the odds, headed to the polls on 30 September to cast ballots in delayed legislative and local elections. Their votes might not count but they played their part. I encourage everyone to register and vote in the future. Real change will only come if more young people exercise their civil and political rights, including the right to vote and stand as candidates in legislative, local and presidential elections.

Personally, I didn't vote due to reasons beyond my control. If I were on the ground I would've definitely voted and my vote wouldn't have been in support of the status quo. The current system has failed the majority of people in Cameroon for more than three decades. The country is rich but poverty stricken. More of the same - thirty years later - won't change the sorry-state of affairs shored up by a toxic mix of unemployment, poverty and human rights violations. Change is possible through the ballot box but a truly independent, transparent, impartial and credible electoral board is needed to make it happen.

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