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Northern Ireland’s fight against Roma racism

 Street News Service 17 October 2019

Belfast hit the news for all the wrong reasons in June 2009 following a series of hate crimes committed against Roma people over the space of four days. These attacks led to over 100 Roma people fleeing Northern Ireland and being forced to return home. Mark Edwards discusses the legacy of these crimes and how Belfast is trying to ensure that these scenes are never seen again. (1126 Words) - By Mark Edwards

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SNS_Northern Ireland's fight against Roma racism

A woman walks past the boarded up windows of a house formerly occupied by Romanian families in Belfast, Northern Ireland June 17, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Belfast is a city well used to negative images being beamed across the world highlighting the dark side of Northern Ireland's continuing problems. However, even the most hardened resident of the city was shocked when in June 2009 a number of hate crimes carried out against the Roma community residing in the south of the city forced over 20 families to flee their homes and return to their respective countries of origin.

These incidents made international news and showed what Amnesty International called "a growing trend of discrimination against Roma people across the province". Over 100 Roma people were subjected to sustained attacks between 11th and 14th of June as a crowd gathered outside their homes shouting racist slogans, smashing windows and kicking in doors. As a result the Roma families sought refuge in a church in South Belfast until they were eventually transferred by the Northern Ireland authorities to temporary accommodation in a leisure centre elsewhere in the city.

It is thought racist tensions were being whipped up by loyalist paramilitary groups as well as right wing organisations such as Combat 18 who are bitterly opposed to the immigration of Eastern Europeans into Northern Ireland. This sustained pressure led to all the Roma families returning to their homelands and accusations being made that Belfast was now the 'racist capital of Europe".

Two months later the Belfast Telegraph reported that twelve of the Roma men had returned to the province as their families were scheduled to return for the new school term in September. It is unclear whether any other Roma families have returned to Northern Ireland since August 2009. Derek Hanaway from An Munia Tober (organisation dedicated to the traveller community) said of these men:  "The men have found new work and are hoping to build new lives for themselves in Belfast".

Many commentators in Ireland believe that the cancer of sectarianism which has plagued Northern Irish communities for decades is now, as foreigners arrive in greater numbers, embracing racism. The University of Ulster conducted a survey in 2007 which found Northern Ireland to have the highest population of bigoted people in the western world. An Equality commission study in 2009 found that nearly a quarter of the people in the province would object to having a migrant as a neighbour.

Immigrants in foreign countries are often the most vulnerable in the community but Roma people are at a particular risk due to low levels of education, high levels of unemployment and a general lack of awareness of their civil rights. As a result, few Roma people participate in the formal economy and therefore do not pay taxes needed to fund benefits that many in their community  receive which is resulting in a high degree of social stigma leading to incidents such as the hate crimes perpetrated in June 2009.

A study carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2011 has found that Roma people in Northern Ireland are particularly vulnerable to forced labour as employers exploit the Roma's economic marginalisation and their limited trust of the authorities. In this report one man described how his employer had physically assaulted and threatened to kill him when he said he was leaving his job. Others described living in fear of losing their job and many accepted poor working conditions and abuse from employers for fear of being deported if they complained.

Despite these depressing statistics and reports, good work has and is continuing to be done. In 2009, Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) met with the Ambassador of Romania to the UK, Dr Ion Jinga to discuss the police response to the discrimination of Roma people.  In addition to regularly patrolling the area and providing a visible presence on the ground to reassure the Roma community, the PSNI arranged meetings with resident groups and as part of the Safer Belfast Plan developed by Belfast Community and Safety Partnership, the Belfast Tension and Monitoring Group (TMG) was established in September 2009. Subsequently in 2010, the Belfast TMG established a Roma subgroup to engage and support the remaining Roma communities and to seek to manage community tensions on an ongoing basis.

On the 12 March 2019, Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay and other senior officers met again with the Ambassador of Romania to UK, Dr Ion Jinga and the new Honorary Consul, Mr Declan O'Loan to discuss the ongoing work with partners, to ensure members of the Romanian community in Northern Ireland could feel safe and well integrated into the local community.

Richard McLernon, a Community Safety Officer in Belfast who works within the Belfast TMG, believes significant progress has been made since the summer of 2009. "We have definitely made progress; we mainly work with people who would class themselves as leaders within the Roma Community".

The Belfast TMG has now secured funding for a Roma support worker dedicated solely to their communities needs. Working together with the PSNI, McLernon believes the focus of integration and working together with the Roma community rather than enforcement has helped the situation.

"It's about building relationships, prior to this there hadn't been a great deal of communication with the Roma living in Belfast. Problems with overcrowding, petty crime and littering in the streets by some individuals within the Roma society had previously been used as an excuse to denigrate all Roma people".

"There are Roma people working proactively with us to solve these problems. Generally there is now a greater awareness about hate crime in Belfast. The Campaign Against Hate has shown that these types of crimes will not be tolerated in Northern Ireland and our joined up approach across statutory agencies is working".

Statistics provided by the PSNI back up McLernon's claims.  Crime statistics relating to recorded crime with a racist motivation indicate that 113 incidents were recorded in South Belfast in 2009/10 while 89 incidents were recorded in 2010/11. In East Belfast 62 incidents were recorded in 2009/2010 and 34 incidents were recorded the next year, which shows that overall in South and East Belfast in 2010/11 there were 52 fewer victims of this type of crime.

Figures relating to the ethnicity and nationality of victims of racist crime show that 19 victims were identified as being Slovakian or Romanian in 2009/2010 while in the following year, 13 victims of racist crime were identified as Slovakian or Romanian. These figures show a downward trend in recorded racist hate crimes overall and against those classed as Roma people.

Although there is clearly a lot of work to be done on the issue of discrimination against Roma people in Northern Ireland, efforts are being made by the Police, council and indeed the Roma people themselves in improve both the image of the Roma and Belfast itself. Though much political progress has been achieved in Northern Ireland since the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, real social change of attitudes appears to be a much longer battle.

(Ends)

Note: In seeking to provide crime stats relating to Roma, two countries of origin have been identified namely Slovakia and Romania. Please note statistics are available on the PSNI website should you wish to expand upon the interpretation.

Note: The Good Friday Agreement 1998: A political agreement between Nationalist and Unionist political parties which led to power being devolved from Westminster to Belfast. As part of the agreement paramilitary groups called ceasefires and agreed to decommission all their weapons. Northern Ireland has had a period of relative peace since this agreement, however small dissident groups continue to carry out terrorist attacks.

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