In Northern Ireland, a Wave of Immigrants Is Met With Fists

Douglas Dalby, New York Times, November 28, 2014

More than 16 years after the Good Friday peace deal brought real hope that Protestants and Roman Catholics could live together in relative harmony, Northern Ireland is being racked by another wave of violence.

But this time it is not driven by the sectarian divide, but by animosity toward a fast-growing population of immigrants–adding one more challenge as Europe struggles to cope with the combination of intense economic strain and rapid demographic change.

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The expanding problem appears to be partly racial and partly directed at immigrants of all backgrounds at a time when open borders in the European Union have led more legal migrants to Britain and Ireland in search of work. At the same time, war and economic deprivation have driven waves of legal and illegal migrants toward Europe from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and parts of Africa tell stories similar to those of people from China, India and Pakistan who have lived here for decades.

Mohammed Khattack, a 24-year-old Pakistani who arrived in Belfast last year hoping to study humanities after three years in London, got a first warning one night in June when an empty wine bottle shattered the front window of his rented house in north Belfast. When he and his housemate, who is also from Pakistan, began cleaning up the next morning, small groups of neighbors had formed. But they had not come to help–they had come to gloat.

Then one of them began raining blows down on Mr. Khattack amid a tirade of racist slurs.

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The police arrested a 57-year-old man, who was later released on bail. The police told Mr. Khattack that the man had since fled the area.

The official figures and anecdotal evidence indicate that the severity and frequency of attacks in Northern Ireland have increased in recent years.

On average, almost three racial hate crimes a day are reported to the police. Between 2013 and 2014 there was a 43 percent increase in racially motivated offenses, 70 percent of them in Belfast. Immigrant groups assert–and the police concede–that the real figure is much higher, with many attacks going unrecorded because of fear of reprisals or a lack of faith in the justice system.

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The police say paramilitary groups are cynically manipulating xenophobia to gain support in their communities by targeting migrants. In April, a senior police officer, Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr, said the rise in the number and severity of racial hate crimes in Protestant loyalist areas left “the unpleasant taste of a bit of ethnic cleansing.”

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Although less prevalent, attacks have also taken place in Catholic west Belfast. In June, hundreds of people marched in the area in support of a Nigerian man who was hospitalized after a racist assault. His attackers had also threatened to run over his 2-year-old daughter and burn down his home.

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In Britain, immigrants make up roughly 12.4 percent of the population, compared with 1.8 percent in Northern Ireland. Still, the rate here is higher than the 0.8 percent in 2001, with the bulk of the immigrants coming from Poland after it joined the European Union in 2004.

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