As a former minister expresses fears about racism being the ‘new sectarian divide‘ in NI, Mohammed Samaana talks about his experiences of racism here. Mohammed is a Palestinian nurse, trade unionist and writer.
My own experiences with institutional racism began in 2004; I was trying to open a bank account with Abbey National using my Palestinian passport as a photographic ID. Abbey National refused it, telling me that they have to be careful as some nationalities can be seen as being ‘associated with terrorism’.
I explained that there is a conflict in my country, which is thousands of miles away and that not one Palestinian passport holder had ever been found guilty or even suspected of imposing a threat to UK security. The bank official insisted that this was not what they said but they have to be careful.
I spoke with the Financial Ombudsman, hoping to complain about the discriminatory treatment I experienced at Abbey National. To my surprise, the Ombudsman defended the bank and supported the decision on the ground that they need to be careful with some nationalities in order to prevent money laundering. The argument went on with the Ombudsman and the bank singing from the same hymn sheet. I felt I was treated as a suspect by both the bank and the Financial Ombudsman, and that the possibility of opening a bank account, something which should be straightforward, became mission impossible.
Personally, I was not going to accept that discrimination is something that I should get used to, if I was going to live as an Arab Palestinian Muslim in a western country. So my next step was to go to the Equality Commission. I was told that the bank’s decision amounts to racial discrimination, I was advised to apply to the Equality Commission to challenge the bank’s decision on my behalf, which I did. I found that completing the form was not easy due to the legal jargon used in it- something that the Commission needs to take into consideration.
Despite the fact that the bank was clearly operating a discriminatory policy that contradicted equality legislation and despite the Equality Commission acknowledging that there was racial discrimination, my application was rejected by the Commission on the grounds that it was not a good enough case to raise awareness of the issue.
“Personally, I was not going to accept that discrimination is something that I should get used to, if I was going to live as an Arab Palestinian Muslim in a western country.”
A number of months before that, I was the victim of two racist attacks, on Great Victoria Street and in Belfast city centre. To put things in their historic and political context, this happened during the Bush-Blair years and their ‘war on terror’. A period that will be always remembered by a foreign policy that led to the invasion of Muslim countries and a domestic policy marked by attacks on civil liberties and by demonisation of Muslims, in order to justify the war on terror waged across these countries. This lead to a hysteric rise in Islamophobia, characterised by: attacks in the street, on peoples’ properties and by discrimination in employment, education, housing and almost all aspects of daily life.
Clearly the Commission failed to recognise the historic significance of the issue, which required an early intervention in order to try to stop institutional racism at an early stage and to make it clear that such discrimination is unacceptable. This is important to prevent others from doing the same thing and to make others aware that they may need to revise their policies. Having said that, the Equality Commission itself as an employer lost two gender discrimination cases that I’m aware of. It’s shocking to know that the Equality Commission itself failed to understand or to implement the equality legislation.
I recently attended training on how to make a complaint about discrimination. Different people from various vulnerable groups reported having negative experiences with the Equality Commission. However, everyone agreed that having the Commission is better than not having it. I was also told that the Commission has a seasonal theme where they focus on one area of equality for a period of time, and that racial discrimination might not have been the theme at the time when I applied.
This is obviously wrong because it can lead to a situation where different groups might think that their issues are more important than others or other groups are given preferential treatment which can create tension and accusations of hierarchy of victimhood. I think it would be more appropriate for the Commission to consider each case on its own merits regardless of what type of discrimination it is.
Between 2004 and 2016, things have changed. Northern Ireland is more ethnically diverse as a society. Unfortunately, this rise has been associated with a rise in racist incidents. PSNI figures indicate that in 2004/05, 813 racist incidents were recorded compared to 1356 incidents in the year 2014/2015. Racism is not the only hate crime on the rise. 196 homophobic incidents were recorded in 2004/2005 compared with 334 incidents in 2014/2015.
Another problem facing ethnic minorities which I consider as institutional racism, and which should be another task for the Equality Commission, alongside other human rights groups, is the absence of the legal framework to deal with racist incidents in Northern Ireland. As it is easier to secure conviction based on an assault instead of racially motivated assault, a lot of those involved in perpetrating racist crimes get away with a reduced sentence because they get charged with an assault which won’t discourage attackers.
I believe that there are a lot of equality issues in Northern Ireland. The Equality Commission has yet to show it has the ability to deal with all these issues equally – especially when sectarianism is no longer the only issue that needs to be dealt with.