LONDON – Northern Ireland's police chief warned Thursday that recent attacks on Romanian immigrants that forced 20 families to flee their homes are damaging the region's economy and reputation.
Chief Constable Hugh Orde criticized the gangs who hurled bricks and bottles at the homes of Romanian families in a working class Belfast neighborhood.
"These people are doing huge damage to the economy of Northern Ireland, the image of Northern Ireland, and it is, in fairness, simply unjustified," he said. "The overwhelming majority of people here are law-abiding and are welcoming to those minority communities who come here to work."
The 20 families who fled their homes earlier this week had sought refuge at a local church and have now been moved to another, undisclosed location for their own safety, police said.
Another Romanian family whose window was smashed Wednesday night remains at home with police protection.
A surge in racist violence over the past few years has coincided with the decline in Northern Ireland's traditional conflict between paramilitary groups rooted in rival Catholic and Protestant districts.
Some of the violence has been blamed on Protestant youths, who once would have vented their anger against Catholics or joined outlawed pro-British paramilitary groups. The attacks have largely taken place in south Belfast, a diverse area that is home to Queen's University, affluent neighborhoods and a working-class Protestant district known as The Village, where curbstones are painted in pro-British red white and blue.
Racial tensions are rising across Europe as migration grows and the economy worsens. Far-right parties picked up seats in several countries in elections for the European Parliament earlier this month. The whites-only British National Party, which calls for the "voluntary repatriation" of immigrants, increased its share of the vote and won its first two European seats.
Going back to Romania is not always the best solution for Gypsies, also called Roma, either.
Europe's 7 million to 9 million Roma people face widespread prejudice in Romania — where estimates of their numbers vary between 500,000 and 2 million — and other countries. Since Romania joined the EU in 2007, thousands of Roma have moved west to richer European countries, where many live in squalid camps with no access to health services, education, basic sanitary facilities or jobs.
Northern Ireland has only a tiny Romanian population — fewer than 1,000 people, according to a government estimate.
But a number of Romanian Gypsies have moved to Belfast since 2007 and have become a visible presence, selling newspapers on the city's streets.
Romanian diplomat Mihai Delcea, who met Northern Ireland politicians after the attacks, said he did not believe the entire community was in danger, and said the displaced families were being looked after by the authorities.
"We are here to build bridges between our communities and societies, not to destroy anything," said Delcea, Romania's consul-general in Britain. "They (Romanians) are safe here, I have not received a negative message from other Romanians here."