Record number of discrimination claims in Belgium, driven by pandemic

Record number of discrimination claims in Belgium, driven by pandemic
Unia argued that the Covid Safe Ticket and the vaccination campaign led to discrimination in access to basic rights. Credit: Belga/ Hatim Kaghat

From the Covid Safe Ticket to the vaccination campaign, the pandemic largely drove a rise in the number of discrimination cases opened in Belgium last year.

A total of 10,610 reports for suspected offences of discrimination, hate messages and hate crimes were received by Belgium’s independent public institution that fights discrimination, Unia, in 2021, an increase of 12% compared to the previous year. The organisation opened 2,379 individual files regarding complaints (+9%).

“Behind these files are mainly 2,379 people who have felt discriminated against and for whom Unia reached out to find solutions,” said director Els Keytsman at the publication of the annual report 2021.

Of all the received reports, 35% were related to the measures taken in connection with the Covid-19 crisis, 16% more than in 2020. The Covid Safe Ticket (CST) and the vaccination campaign led to discrimination in access to basic rights such as getting health care and assistance.

The largest share of pandemic-related complaints was against the media (1,054), followed by goods and services (712) and society as a whole (508).

“This increase is largely explained by the resumption of activities in a number of sectors that were shut down in 2020 due to the health crisis,” a Unia statement read.

Housing and labour market

Many of the files opened by Unia also concerned discrimination in the labour and housing market.

The latter accounted for 45.8% of the opened files in the “goods and services” domain, a figure that has been increasing since 2016, as the housing crisis increased the risk of discrimination due to the lack of affordable and quality housing.

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Candidate tenants are mainly discriminated against because of the nature of their income, even though refusing people with unemployment benefits, living wage or other social benefits is prohibited by law.

“There is an urgent need for a better insight into the reality of discrimination in the private rental market,” Keytsman said. Various Flemish cities are cooperating to combat housing discrimination through correspondence or practical tests, while Brussels is now screening for discrimination in the housing market.

Stopping discrimination

In half of the 2,584 files closed in 2021, a violation of anti-discrimination laws was identified, with Unia issuing 186 opinions and recommendations last year to help discrimination victims defend themselves.

“For 515 victims, we were able to find an extrajudicial solution,” said Keytsman. “We succeed in getting the discrimination recognised and stopped, in obtaining compensation for the victim if the law provides for it, and in preventing any discrimination in the future by taking structural measures.”

Legal proceedings had to be initiated in 2% of cases.

“I am delighted that more and more citizens are finding their way to Unia and taking the step of reporting discrimination, even if we know that these figures only reflect the tip of the iceberg,” Sarah Schlitz, Secretary of State for Equal Opportunities, said in response to the published figures.

In the face of these increases and the de-funding of Unia, she added the government would be freeing up €1 million per year from this year onwards  to continue its work.

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