There have been a number of racist attacks in Northern Ireland over the last two weeks that back up PSNI statistics showing a marked increase in physical attacks, nearly 30 per cent, over the last quarter.
After a virulently racist meeting in the Lower Ormeau area of South Belfast two weeks ago there have been at least three physical attacks on people from the Roma community in that area. In Antrim a Polish family's flat was pipe bombed, a physical attack on an Indian man occurred in North Belfast and posters demanding 'local houses for local people' were put up around Belvoir Park.
It needs to be stated firstly that these attacks are by and large disparate. They are not the work of any one group. While groups like the BNP exist here they are small and relatively dishevelled and as far as can be ascertained do not organise in the areas in question. Secondly, the attacks are occurring in both predominantly Catholic and Protestant areas. There is, it appears, a general rise in racist scapegoating.
Underlying these attacks are arguments which are based on racist myths.
Immigrants do not take 'our' jobs. An interesting statistic contained in a recent Northern Ireland Assembly report on immigration suggested that the net increase in long term immigration since 2000 was around 24,000 people. The net increase in jobs relating to the needs of these immigrants was over 40,000. That is close to two jobs being created per immigrant.
Unemployment was far lower five years ago when immigration was at its peak. In fact, the number of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers has reduced markedly over the last couple of years as the recession hollows out the job market.
In any case it is very difficult for many immigrants to get jobs and in the particular case of the Roma, a special work permit is required. When Roma do get work they are subject to mistreatment and some Roma working in car washes have been paid as little as 20 pounds for an 11-hour shift.
Immigrants have not caused the social housing crisis. In terms of social housing, immigrants generally, and refugees and asylum seekers in particular are not entitled to social housing. That’s why many people end up in overcrowded private housing, just as people who were born locally tend to do when forced into the private rental market while waiting to be allocated social housing.
In terms of the Roma it is utterly ridiculous to suggest that they live in overcrowded conditions because they are ethnically or culturally disposed to do this. It is because they cannot work easily or receive benefits, and so are reduced to selling the Big Issue, the Belfast Telegraph, or begging. When that fails to provide the necessary finances, then living many families to a house occurs as a last ditch option.
By and large everyone knows that the austerity measures introduced by Cameron and Clegg and implemented by the Assembly have exacerbated the high unemployment brought about by the recession. It is also common knowledge that the chronic shortage of social housing has been brought about by lack of investment overseen locally by the Assembly. In desperate times people can grasp at equally desperate ideas.
To combat the rise in racism and racist attacks the Anti Racism Network will be organising activities to help dispel the myths being put forward, and Love Music Hate Racism NI has a number of gigs in the coming weeks organised in the communities where these attacks are taking place.