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Interview: Human Rights Watch’s First Dedicated Researcher on Racism in Europe

Almaz Teffera to Focus on Systemic Racism in Germany, France, the United Kingdom

After many years work on racism and human rights, in October 2022, Human Rights Watch hired our first dedicated researcher on this topic in Europe, Almaz Teffera. Almaz’s work will focus on Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Amy Braunschweiger speaks with Almaz about her passion for this work, the rise of racism and far-right politics in Europe, and what this new role means for both her and the organization.

Almaz Teffera, Human Rights Watch's racism researcher in Europe.  © Human Rights Watch

Tell me about your new job as our Europe racism researcher.

I’ll be looking into discrimination based on race, religion, or ethnicity, building on our previous work. People face racism in everyday life, from their teachers in school, in their ability to find work or housing, in racial profiling by police, in barriers to health care, or how they’re treated at work or in society.

Because they face discrimination and perhaps even violence, a lot of people are afraid to be themselves, whether that’s being Black or Jewish or Roma, in a European country. For example, some Jewish people in Germany are afraid to show their faith by wearing a kippah [yarmulke] or by going to synagogue.

This is related to the normalization and resurgence of far-right politics in Europe, which exacerbate the racism, antisemitism, and discrimination already being perpetrated. We just had elections in Italy, where a far-right political party was the largest party and has formed a new government.

Then there’s how colonialism and the failure to address harms stemming from it continue to impact policies and practices and the rights of people today.  

What draws you to this work?

It’s very personal. As a Black woman, I was born and raised in Germany. I have faced a plethora of lived experience of racism, at school, by strangers on the street. I see how my father is treated in Germany. My mom is white, and my dad is a refugee from Ethiopia who has lived in Germany longer than Ethiopia, yet is treated like he doesn’t belong in German society. People ask us questions like, where are you really from? How do you speak German without an accent? At the airport, my father’s been pulled out of line by border officials to show his documents before even reaching immigration control.

As a child, I knew I’d always have to prove I belonged in a majority-white society. I was put in a box, whether I wanted to be or not. In German we say, “mit Migrationshintergrund,” which means that you’re a person “with a migration background.” It’s a very ugly term, I think. Ask any Black person or Muslim person here. It takes away your heritage and identity. You’re just a jumble of someone that’s not white.

I am also well aware that I had a white mother. For me, it was clear I would go to university. Non-white people in Germany and other EU countries might not have that privilege, as some parents don’t know how to access education or certain jobs. I want to use that privilege to strengthen the anti-racism movement.

What issues related to racism is Europe facing?

I’ve always talked with friends and family in private about racism. I even started a blog with poetry about racism. In Germany, racism is a taboo topic. If you say racism exists in general, people will agree. But if you say there is structural racism in Germany, in institutions, then people shift their opinion, saying no that’s not true. It is as if you’re calling their society or their identity racist, and people get quickly offended.

But it’s difficult to expect change to happen when you can’t even talk about a thing or say that it exists, or if the focus is only private acts of prejudice or hate rather than the structural problems that prevent people from minoritized communities from enjoying their rights.

I’m German, so I speak from that context. Germany’s former interior ministry says there’s no structural racism in law enforcement. But leaked communications and chat groups by police officers show that some are in far-right groups.

In France, HRW is engaged in a class action lawsuit against the French state, which has failed to prevent ethnic profiling by police doing identity checks. In the UK you have the Windrush scandal, an example of deep structural and systemic racism, where authorities effectively denied Black British people their citizenship, leading to them losing jobs, healthcare, and homes and being separated from their families.  

Relatedly, governments often don’t collect data on ethnicity and race. How can you address issues without knowing the data?

How do you want to approach this newly created role?

While HRW has done work on racism before in Europe, there are others who know this space far better than we do, including civil society groups that only do anti-racism work. It’s important to respect and recognize their expertise and see which issues they think HRW should address, and how we can best bring a human rights lens to work on racism and discrimination. I want to come with an open mind. I want to listen first.

Also, Human Rights Watch has experience bringing serious rights abuses to governments and powerful actors, and our research is respected by governments – even when they don’t like our criticism. Many civil society groups are already adept at this while others don’t have the same access as we do. I want to make sure we help amplify the work of civil society groups and create more space for them at the policy-making table.

I do see opportunities for us to work with what is known as “equality bodies” and strengthen them. These are public organizations that assist people affected by discrimination or racism, and that advocate for their protection by monitoring and reporting on discrimination issues. But often these offices aren’t functioning effectively, they often lack resources, and people don’t know how to reach them. These agencies are a place where we could collect statistics, because like I said, these numbers are missing.

Similarly, people don’t report acts of racism to the police because they have lost trust in the police, as cases of racism among law enforcement are rising. We need to investigate the extent of structural racism within law and public institutions to build systems that protect everyone, regardless of their skin color, religion, or other characteristics.

We will work closely with partners to push for short- and long-term solutions to make sure racial, ethnic, and religious rights are respected, that members of these groups feel safe again in Europe, and that they have access to redress where their rights are violated.

Have you worked in the racism space before?

Seeing how my father was treated, and knowing he was a refugee, made me want to work in human rights. My two masters are in human rights law, humanitarian law, refugee law, and international criminal law.

I’ve worked at an international criminal tribunal in Cambodia, established to prosecute the most responsible members of the Khmer Rouge regime, which perpetuated a genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s. After that I went to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, where I worked in the prosecution office.

Then I moved away from criminal law and into the area of asylum law in the UK, which I saw as a move into anti-racism work. I worked as a case worker assisting non-British nationals living in the UK. Some were facing homelessness. I provided legal advice and helped them access housing, benefits, and social assistance. I also worked on a refugee case that went to the European Court of Human Rights. Then I worked at a European umbrella nongovernmental organization, the European Council of Refugees and Exiles in Brussels, doing advocacy for refugee protection in the EU.

It was a dream of mine, though, to do anti-racism work in Europe at an international human rights NGO such as Human Rights Watch.

Why did Human Rights Watch prioritize hiring the position in Europe?

HRW has long done work on racism and discrimination around the world, including in the US, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

In Europe, we’ve done a lot of work on racist hate crimes, discriminatory policing and anti-terrorism laws, and also on xenophobic and racist migration policies. My colleagues working in Europe realized there were gaps in our work. They had limited capacity when it came to engaging with colonialism’s legacy of and how it shapes racism in Europe, and they wanted more capacity to collaborate with civil society efforts. We really needed a dedicated racism researcher if we were going to be effective.

What are you most looking forward to?

I recently had a conversation with a refugee here in Germany. She’s female, from eastern Africa, and a grassroots activist facing many issues of racism. I said to her, hey, I’m going to start this role, I’m super excited, I can’t wait to collaborate, and I can’t wait for us to support your work. And she said, what do you mean support? It’s also your fight.

And she reminded me that it’s not just us supporting others. It’s us being part of the struggle.

*The interview has been edited and condensed.

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