VIENNA Populist politicians and extremist groups are using the economic crisis as an excuse to discriminate against Europe's Roma population and other minorities, human rights agencies said on Tuesday.
Fueled by the downturn, anti-foreigner sentiment has risen in parts of Europe as residents and immigrants compete for fewer jobs with lower wages.
"(We) are deeply concerned by the continuing discriminatory treatment and exclusion of the Roma, and particularly by the recent escalation in hate-motivated incidents and racist rhetoric," the agencies said.
The joint statement, from the Vienna-based European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was issued before International Roma Day on Wednesday.
"Scapegoat has already resulted in damaging inter-ethnic relations and increased incidents of violent hate crime in some countries," it said.
Italians set fire to two Roma camps in Naples last year and the Roma people have been portrayed by Italian government right- wingers and the media as a criminal problem.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government was criticized by rights groups over a plan to fingerprint Roma people, including children, as part of a crime crackdown.
Anti-minority violence has broken out in the Czech Republic and Hungary, where far-right and nationalist parties have stoked resentment. British construction workers protested earlier this year over the hiring of foreign contractors and Russia and Spain have also been affected by anti-foreigner incidents.
"As the economic crisis deepens, political leaders need to unequivocally and publicly condemn any form of violence targeting Roma," the agencies said.
They expressed concern about racial profiling of Roma in certain countries.
"Roma who are EU citizens have the right to move and reside freely within the EU, but nevertheless often face discriminatory treatment," the statement said.
(Reporting by Sylvia Westall)