Discrimination against ethnic minorities continued to be the country’s most significant human rights problem. This discrimination manifested itself in housing, education, employment, and lack of support by political parties.
In 2011 most complaints received by the CEOOR concerned alleged problems based on nationality or ethnic origin (39.8 percent), physical disabilities (19.7 percent), and discrimination on the grounds of religious and philosophical orientation (14.1 percent). Discriminatory acts primarily took place at work or over the Internet. The CEOOR deemed 21 percent of the complaints it received to be justified.
Over the past few years, outright racial discrimination has become more socially unacceptable, but it often persisted in the form of religious discrimination – not as universally frowned upon as ethnic discrimination – or in the guise of practices that purportedly checked the influence of religion in public life but which effectively restricted the access of Muslims to employment opportunities, housing, and education. In July the Council of Europe highlighted the country in a report on the spread of anti-Muslim policies and laws across Europe. The report reviewed the discrimination faced by Muslims in employment, housing, educational opportunities, and public dress, in particular restrictions on head scarves and the burqa ban.
The government continued to fall short of its declared goal of developing a national action plan against racism.
The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang party pursued insulting media stunts, such as handing out pork sausages to students at a halal barbeque in Antwerp.
According to the CEOOR, the economic downturn in Europe contributed to a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the country, both among the public and within the political parties. An estimated 50 percent of individuals of Turkish or Moroccan origin lived in poverty, compared to 15 percent of citizens of Belgian origin.
The secular belief shared by most political parties that “the neutrality of the state” regarding religion takes precedence over the freedom of religion and expression in the public sphere was frequently used as a justification for laws that resulted in restricting the rights of certain groups, notably Muslim women. Muslim women who wore headscarves faced discrimination in professional-level employment, especially in jobs involving interaction with the public. In a widely publicized case, a headscarf-wearing employee of a Belgian branch of the Dutch Hema department store was told she could no longer work in customer relations because clients had complained that her headscarf made them uncomfortable.
According to a December National Bank publication, the rate of employment for citizens born outside the European Union was 45.8 percent during the year. The employment rate for native Belgians was approximately 20 percent higher than that of immigrants.
According to the study, discrimination in the labor market played a role, with employers giving preference to native workers. Due to legal obstacles and special training requirements, immigrants were also systematically underemployed in public services and education. Furthermore, immigrants were often most employed in sectors with greater job insecurity, such as hotels and restaurants. They were more likely to be employed under a temporary contract.
In April an AI report highlighted the discrimination against Muslims in various European countries, including Belgium. The report emphasized discrimination faced by ethnic minorities in education or in the labor market, referring to the ban on head scarves in the vast majority of the country’s schools and the difficulty for a woman wearing the hijab to get a job.
In July 2011 a national ban on wearing the full-face veil in public places came into effect. There were several known instances of the ban being enforced, in one case triggering a riot in a Muslim dominated area on May 31. Offenders may be fined 137.50 euros ($182) and sentenced to up to seven days in jail. Legal proceedings challenging the constitutionality of the ban continued to work their way through the court system.
Data released by the Ministry of Justice indicated that in 2011 the courts dismissed 61.5 percent of cases of alleged discrimination based on ethnicity or sexual orientation.
The Roma were frequently victims of discrimination in terms of access to education, work, and housing. Prior to the October local elections, some mayors in Wallonia took an increasingly hard line against the Roma communities, including undertaking preventive expulsions in several municipalities, specifically in the Liege and Hainaut Provinces. Exact data on the number expelled was unavailable at year’s end.
Following the expulsions of Roma elsewhere in Europe in 2010, the European Commission requested EU member states to submit an action plan focusing on Roma; the country did so in February. The action plan called for a number of measures to improve the integration of the Romani community into society. On June 5, the Minister of Equal Opportunities founded a Roma Council to create an institution representing Roma, which could act as an interlocutor with the government. Although not fully operational, the council has developed contacts and initiated some projects. While the action plan was seen as a step forward, observers believed that it did not sufficiently distinguish between the problems of the Roma, who frequently were forced to move due to pervasive discrimination, and “travelers,” who voluntarily opted for a more nomadic lifestyle.