By Kirsti Knolle
VIENNA (Reuters) - Core human rights and the institutions that are meant to protect them are under serious pressure across the European Union as it struggles with a large influx of migrants and refugees, the head of the EU's Agency for Fundamental Rights said in an interview.
The scale of that influx - with more than 1.5 million entering the EU in the past two years, many fleeing war and persecution - has boosted support for anti-immigrant, far-right parties in Germany, Austria, France and elsewhere and spurred an increase in hate crimes.
"In this part of the world, the global north, this is the most serious situation (for human rights) that I have seen in my professional career," said agency chief Michael O'Flaherty, who has worked in the field for more than two decades.
"Not just because of the patterns of the abuse of rights but because of the extent to which the very structures for the protection of the rights are under threat," he said.
O'Flaherty added that he was referring to the willingness of some European leaders to "denigrate the role of rights and to challenge the institutions that uphold them such as courts".
The 57-year-old Irishman did not name specific countries, but the European Commission and human rights groups have accused Hungary and Poland of undermining the independence of their judiciary and media.
Governments across the EU have also tightened border controls and asylum laws, making it increasingly hard for migrants and asylum seekers to enter and stay in the bloc.
"RIGHTS ARE ABOUT US"
Even as the Vienna-based agency celebrated its 10th anniversary on Tuesday, Austria backed a draft law which would allow authorities to stop providing accommodation and food to rejected asylum seekers who refuse to leave the country.
European authorities and media have a "big job" to explain to public opinion that most migrants are here for good reason and to demonstrate why they deserve help, O'Flaherty said.
"Human rights are increasingly understood by the general population to be about others, and not always others that they particularly like," said O'Flaherty, a former lawyer.
"We have to communicate better that human rights are about us, our family, our children, our parents. They are for all of us."
Authorities must also do much more to tackle hate speech, he added.
"We have seen too much hate speech and hate crime that has gone unchallenged. Laws are applicable online as well as offline," O'Flaherty said.
(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Gareth Jones)