A wave of racist attacks in Murcia, an autonomous region in south-eastern Spain, has sparked shock and outrage, with local organizations denouncing what they describe as an unprecedented month of racist violence.
Younes Bilal, a 37-year-old Moroccan, was shot dead in a bar on June 13 by a Spaniard who had made racist remarks to Bilal and a group of friends, according to witnesses at the scene. That same week, an Ecuadorian-Spanish woman, Lilián Zúñiga, was admitted to hospital after being assaulted by a woman at a food bank who allegedly used a racist insult and shouted: “They are stealing food from us” . This was after a 22-year-old Moroccan man, Momoun Koutaibi, was assaulted on June 5 by a colleague, leaving him in a coma.
This month, tensions in the region escalated after the vandalism of a local mosque in the Cabezo de Torres district. In February, there was an attempt to burn down a mosque in the town of San Javier. Last year, activists said protesters held a rally outside a center for unaccompanied migrant minors, alleging those staying there were bringing COVID-19 with them. A “fake” explosive was found outside the center last year.
“It was horrible,” said Juan Guirado, spokesperson for an anti-racist organization, Convivir Sin Racismo. “Murcia is a calm region,” he added.
“We have had a Moroccan population here for 30 years, we have never had problems like this.”
It took several days for the regional assembly of Murcia to issue a statement condemning “the racist murder of Younes Bilal” and criticizing “the hate speech promoted by a xenophobic far right, of which the region is already tragically suffering the effects”. The declaration was signed by all political parties in the assembly.
The conservative Popular Party (PP) rules the region with the support of the far-right VOX party, which garnered the most votes in Murcia in the 2019 general election. VOX won four seats in the 2019 autonomous elections, but in June , the party demanded the revocation of the membership of three of its deputies, reported El País newspaper.
“There is the creation of a discourse based on constant fear, they present immigrants as a ‘threat’ that they take our jobs, use our social security, that they are a matter of security,” said Guirado. , deploring the lack of firm condemnation from national political institutions.
“These are not isolated cases, this is what we are trying to tell them.”
Sabah Yacoubi, who heads the Association of Moroccan Migrant Workers (ATIM) in Murcia, also criticized the lack of extensive national coverage on the recent racist attacks, as well as the lack of a public statement by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Yacoubi argued that the media and institutional silence contributed to a climate of impunity.
“Denial of the problem”
The Spanish National Council for the Elimination of Racial and Ethnic Discrimination condemned (PDF) Bilal’s murder and racist attacks in a report, calling on “the media and representatives of the public” to avoid “racist or xenophobic narratives that affect coexistence in our country”. In 2020, the board reported a nationwide increase in racial and ethnic discrimination, partly due to (PDF) by far-right political groups and fake news.
Antumi Toasijé, the chairman of the board, which acts as an autonomous branch of the Ministry of Equality, believes that “there is a clear link between political discourse and actions in the streets”, adding that the current number of attacks racist is grossly underreported.
For Toasijé, the institutional silence condemned by local actors was not surprising. “There is a general denial of the problem [of racism] across the country, ”he said, making a distinction between the far right which openly promotes racist rhetoric and other political parties and groups which often disseminate similar narratives in a less open manner.
Historically, North African communities are among the main targets of racial discrimination in Spain, Toasijé said. This includes Muslim communities who do not always benefit from institutional support. When it comes to VOX, its anti-immigration rhetoric is often selective, added Toasijé. “She is reluctant towards African and Muslim migrants but less towards Latin American migrants”, in a story often veiled under justifications of “cultural unity”.
In 2019, VOX went from a largely insignificant number of votes to being the third party in parliament.
Earlier this year, Twitter temporarily disabled The VOX account for “inciting hate speech” after claiming that the Muslim community in Catalonia was responsible for 93% of police complaints. In 2019, VOX chief Santiago Abascal falsely suggested that nearly 70% of gang rapes in Spain were committed by foreigners.
Andrés Santana, a political scientist and professor at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid whose book examines the rise of VOX, argued that the party’s rise was primarily driven by its opposition to Catalan independence. However, the strength of territorial issues in attracting voters appears to be diminishing, leading VOX to put more emphasis on its discourse on immigration. “VOX is learning from what other relatively successful radical right-wing populist parties have done in other countries and has learned that reporting the anti-immigration issue can earn them votes.”
In May, a campaign poster placed by VOX ahead of the regional elections in the Madrid station Puertas Del Sol used an acronym often used pejoratively to denote unaccompanied migrant minors (UMs), claiming: “€ 4,700 [$5,533] one month for a MENA. € 426 [$501] one month for your grandmother’s pension. In small print, it was written: “Protect Madrid. Vote for safety.
Those numbers are wrong, but this month a court in Madrid ruled that the statements were protected by rules governing free speech. El País reported that the court said that “regardless of whether the proposed figures are true or not, [foreign migrants] represent an obvious social and political problem, with consequences and effects on our international relations, as we know ”.
For Lorenzo Gabrielli, senior researcher at GRITIM-UPF and assistant professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona who studies borders and migration policies, these institutional reactions help to legitimize the conduct of VOX. “This is a clear case of xenophobia and racism based on false data.”
According to Maldita.es, an independent platform for monitoring disinformation and public discourse in Spain, the last year has seen spikes in disinformation around immigration on social media and WhatsApp, especially when migrants arrive. in the Canary Islands.
In April, when thousands of people crossed the border from Ceuta, Maldita.es reporter Natalia Diez said: “In 12 hours, we published almost 10 articles about hoaxes that went viral.”
In 2019, Facebook deleted (PDF) several networks disseminating far-right content ahead of the national elections, according to campaign group Avaaz. The pages also shared anti-immigration content, often through false and misleading statements.
Gabrielli believes that the press often fails to question certain far-right narratives, mainly about irregular migration, where negative or false news is often reproduced in bulk. “Visibility is given in a non-critical way,” he said, adding that VOX had significant media coverage even before entering parliament, unlike other parties with a similar share of votes.
“This exhibit sets the agenda, it frames the perception of things and the reaction often just tries to dismantle what is being said,” Gabrielli said. He suggests that it puts the media at a disadvantage when competing with the steady influx of fake news, “as people deconstruct this fake news and racist narratives, the far right has produced three more headlines.”
Santana agreed that a significant portion of the Spanish media still takes into account some of VOX’s political views and expressed concern that this might help legitimize some of the party’s rhetoric, if not challenged.
“It looks like we’re running in that direction. “
Al Jazeera has contacted VOX and the Murcia Regional Assembly for comment, but has not received a response at the time of publication.