Fifty-six years ago today, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, against that country's apartheid "pass laws". These were discriminatory laws that restricted the movement of people classified as black. It is in memory of this terrible tragedy that the UN's International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed every year on the 21st March. While the appalling apartheid regime is now gone, eventually brought down after many decades of struggle, sadly racism still exists.
The Labour Party has a long and proud tradition of combating discrimination and prejudice including racism. It was a Labour government that passed the Race Relations Act in 1965 which made racial discrimination unlawful in public places. Companies could no longer refuse to serve people because of the colour of their skin, and horrific signs like “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs” were finally made illegal. It was also a Labour government that introduced legislation outlawing racial discrimination in the workplace, as well as the 2010 Equality Act which outlawed both direct and indirect discrimination.
Yet, citizens from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds still face massive inequalities in many areas such as education, health, wealth, and employment. As an example, the employment rate for those from ethnic minorities is a staggering 11.6 percentage points below that for the population as a whole.
If we are to tackle these problems, the Labour Party needs to continue to put its values of equality, tolerance and opportunity for all into practice. That of course means zero tolerance for all those- including party members- who express racist, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic views; and it means standing up to those who are keen to stoke up racial and community tensions for their own political purposes.
Two days ago, tens of thousands of people showed their support for the UN Anti-Racism Day during a demonstration in London, organised by Stand up to Racism. Many of them were carrying "refugees welcome" posters. Finding a solution for the refugee crisis and helping desperate people who are fleeing war and persecution is one of the most important tasks of our times.
I have been calling, along with my Labour colleagues in the European Parliament, for a compassionate, humanitarian and coordinated response to the refugee crisis right from the very start - and for the United Kingdom to play its role as a leading member of the EU and to take more refugees.
We have made clear what this response should look like in practice. For instance, on International Women's Day this year, Labour MEPs voted in favour of a European Parliament report, authored by my colleague Mary Honeyball, calling for measures to improve the conditions of women seeking asylum, including protecting them from violence. We will also continue to call for a critical upgrade of the EU's response to the refugee crisis, particularly in relations to reception conditions, responsible sharing of refugees between member states, and above all, tackling the root causes of the crisis.
These are concrete actions that we can take to make life better for those who are fleeing terrible persecution in their home countries. We need to continue to stand together - on Anti-Racism Day and throughout the rest of the year - to protect human rights and fight racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.