BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — The thugs used bricks and bottles to drive more than 100 Romanian Gypsies from their homes in a wave of attacks. On Wednesday, the victims were sheltering in a community center after a church plucked them off a Belfast street.
The grim images from this week — families carrying possessions in bundled blankets, a mother clutching her 5-day-old baby — are more evidence of rising anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, but also of a situation unique to Northern Ireland: new fault lines in its tragic history of ethnic divisions.
About 20 Romanian families, carrying their belongings in suitcases, duffel bags and blankets, were being sheltered on the community center's indoor tennis courts. One man carried an accordion, while parents gripped the hands of young children and some women covered their heads with jackets and sweaters to avoid being photographed.
The families were taken in by the City Church on Tuesday after youths attacked their homes in a working-class neighborhood of south Belfast, smashing windows and hurling threats. Local authorities moved them to the roomier community center Wednesday morning. Some said the attackers had guns, but there were no reports of serious injuries.
"They made signs like they wanted to cut my brother's baby's throat," said one man, Couaccusil Filuis. "They said they wanted to kill us."
Police said the racist attacks started last week, with gangs smashing house windows and attacking cars. The violence flared again on Monday when youths hurling bottles and Nazi salutes attacked an anti-racism rally called to support the migrants.
Belfast City council press officer Mark Ashby said the majority of the victims were Roma, or Gypsies, from Romania.
Romania's Foreign Ministry condemned the attacks and urged British authorities to take measures to avoid more racist violence.
Marian Mandache, from the Romanian Gypsy NGO Romani Criss, said the Northern Ireland violence was the latest in a disturbing trend of attacks across Europe.
"Starting with Italy in 2007, there have been waves of ... racist attacks against Roma," said Mandache. "Afterwards, there were attacks in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania."
The Northern Ireland government said the displaced Romanians would be given temporary accommodation in Belfast. But many said they wanted to leave Northern Ireland.
"We want to go home because right now we are not safe here," said a woman who gave only her first name, Maria. "We want to go back home to Romania, everybody right now does."
Racial tensions are rising across Europe as the pace of migration grows and the economy worsens. Far-right parties picked up seats in many 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.
Europe's 7 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. The European Union's rights agency has said Roma face "overt discrimination" in housing, health care and education, despite many government programs designed to help them.
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. More than 700 encampments have been built in Italy, where Gypsies have been met with hostility and blamed for begging and street crime.
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.
"The fact is we've seen a lot of things change here — people selling the Belfast Telegraph on the streets, something you didn't see before," said Jolena Flett of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities. "They are easily identifiable.
"When people are looking for a fight, as a lot of people are now, just because of frustrations in their own lives, anything will spark it off."
Northern Ireland's 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.
Much 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.
Racist attacks have become especially common in south Belfast, a diverse area that is home to Queen's University, some of the city's most affluent neighborhoods and a Protestant district known as The Village, a close-knit working-class neighborhood where curbstones are painted in pro-British red white and blue.
Dozens of families, including Chinese, Africans and Poles, have been driven from their homes in recent years, and student houses — occupied by a mix of Catholics and Protestants — have been attacked by Protestant gangs.
Patrick Yu, director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, accused the perpetrators of seeking "ethnic cleansing of all minorities out of the Village and the surrounding area."
The latest bout of racial tension in Belfast has escalated since an international soccer match between Poland and Northern Ireland sparked rioting three months ago. Flett said more than 40 Polish families had been forced out of their homes in south Belfast since then.
Police said there was no evidence the violence against the Romanians had been orchestrated by paramilitary groups, and politicians from both sides of the sectarian divide were quick to condemn the attacks.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a Catholic and former IRA commander, said the attacks had been carried out by "racist criminals within our society who are unrepresentative of the vast majority of the people of Belfast."
"I am appalled at this situation," said Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, a Protestant from the Ulster Unionist Party. "There is no place in Northern Ireland for this kind of racist violence and abuse."
Associated Press Writers Meera Selva and Nardine Saad in London and Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest, Romania contributed to this report. Lawless reported from London.
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