The Lockdown Laws Are New, But The Enforcement Criteria is Old: Skin Color | Opinion

Much of the official data regarding police stops and searches during the COVID-19 lockdowns in Europe makes for chilling reading. Only in France, police stopped and searched more than 20 million people, that is one in every three people, and fined over 1 million people. Look more closely and you'll see a disturbing pattern of discrimination in the way in which the police enforced lockdown measures.

We know that more people from minority ethnic groups were stopped in France simply because the police were more likely to focus their attention on poorer areas. These same areas are home to a higher proportion of people from minority backgrounds. In Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest area of mainland France, where a big portion of residents are Black or of North African origin, the number of fines for breaching the lockdown was three times higher than in the rest of the country, despite the local authorities saying that respect for lockdown measures in that area was similar to other parts of the country.

As we will show in our report published next week, authorities around Europe adopted a number of restrictive measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these had the legitimate aim of curbing the spread of the disease. But conferring additional powers to the police and relying on punitive approaches to enforce them was a dangerous choice.

The protests sweeping Europe in solidarity with people in the USA outraged by the excessive use of force by the police against Black people, are a timely reminder that racial bias within law enforcement is still pervasive in Europe too. Racial profiling, unlawful use of force and impunity for abuses by the police and deaths in custody are among some of the systemic flaws of law enforcement in Europe.

For example, 184 people with ethnic minority background are reported to have died in custody or following contact with the police in England and Wales since 1990. In Germany, at least 159 people with an ethnic minority background have died in police custody since 1990.

The coercive enforcement of COVID-19 lockdowns in Europe has heightened existing human rights concerns resulting in ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups, including people who are homeless, paying the price. Not only have they been ill-treated by the police but they have also faced forced evictions and discriminatory quarantines.

Young people with an ethnic minority background living in the deprived neighbourhoods of large European cities have often experienced discriminatory checks. According to the London Metropolitan Police racial profiling in London worsened during the lockdown as the number of Black people who were searched increased by nearly a third between March and April 2020.

Such racial profiling undermines confidence and trust in the police and may explain why on 14 April, Adil, a young man with a North African background, fled the police to avoid an identity check in Anderlecht (Brussels). Police had been issuing fines of €250 to young people for failing to comply with lockdown measures. Even before the lockdown was mandated in Belgium, people of North African descent were being usually stopped and searched twice as much as White people in the country.

Adil tragically died after three police cars gave chase, resulting in a collision between his scooter and a police car. While an investigation has been launched into the circumstances of Adil's death, there have been questions raised as to whether chasing a young unarmed man who had not committed any crime is a proportionate response to an alleged violation of lockdown measures.

Forced quarantines of Roma settlements and migrant camps have also laid bare racial stereotypes and entrenched discrimination around Europe. Instead of protecting these marginalized groups from COVID-19 and supporting them to comply voluntarily with the required public health measures, the authorities have further isolated and penalized them. Police, and in some instances even the army, have surrounded camps and settlements to enforce the quarantines. These measures expose the contempt with which marginalized groups, who already face exclusion and discrimination, are treated as if their lives don't matter enough to those in power.

Protecting public health may justify certain restrictions on human rights, when these are necessary and proportionate. However, the way in which many European governments have relied on the security forces to enforce the restrictions has been a recipe for disaster and it has often led to marginalized groups being disproportionately affected or even targeted in a discriminatory manner.

The link between additional police powers and human rights violations is not new. For example, increased powers given to the police during the state of emergency in France between 2015 and 2017 led to thousands of abusive house searches by the police that mainly targeted Muslims because of their religion and without any element indicating that they were a threat to national security.

Coercive approaches that European states have pursued to address the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more cases of unlawful use of force by police, racial profiling and discriminatory quarantines. This approach has, once more, taken a toll on marginalized groups. In the dystopian reality of lockdowns, police have even fined people who are homeless because...they failed to stay at home.

The Black Lives Matter protests around the world have forced us all to think about alternatives to racist and coercive forms of policing. We cannot do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. What COVID-19 has shown us is that public health cannot come at the expense of human rights. European governments should think twice next time before entrusting police with the enforcement of public health measures.

Marco Perolini is the Europe researcher for Amnesty International.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.