More than 100 Romanians evacuated from their homes in Belfast following a sustained campaign of racist intimidation and violence were last night in emergency accommodation in the city.
Some of the men and women of the 20 families affected were injured in incidents which included bricks being thrown through windows, while one man said intruders had threatened to cut a child's throat.
The surge of intimidation was said by locals to be the work of "a small group of racist thugs" who had terrified the Romanian families living in two south Belfast streets. Politicians and community leaders yesterday condemned the attacks, which this week reached a peak following increased tension in the area. One councillor suggested police had been slow to react at first.
Families were given refuge first in a local church hall and later bussed to a leisure centre in another part of the city.
One man, who gave his name as Deaglaz, showed a stitched wound on his abdomen which he said had been caused by broken glass after the windows were smashed in his house.
"Ten persons, they drink, they no good, they broke in the house," he said in broken English.
Another man, Couaccusil Filuis, said the intruders had even threatened to kill children: "They made signs like they wanted to cut my brother's baby's throat," he said. "They said they wanted to kill us."
A woman in the leisure centre, who gave her name as Maria, said: "We are OK, we are safe now. But we want to go home because right now we are not safe here. I want to go home because I have two kids and I want my kids to be safe." One of the children in the centre was just five weeks old.
The incidents are the latest in a series of eruptions of racist activity which over the last decade have been directed at Poles, Africans, Portuguese, Lithuanians, Latvians, Filipinos and many other nationalities.
The attacks took place in Wellesley Avenue and Belgravia Avenue, which are high-density, low-rent streets housing many students and others on short-term lets. Close by is the loyalist Sandy Row area, with the attackers likely to be young, disaffected Protestants, although the police and locals do not believe they are members of paramilitary groups or organised gangs.
Fewer than 1,000 Romanians live in Northern Ireland, but many of them tend to be highly visible as they sell newspapers at traffic junctions, offer The Big Issue and play musical instruments such as the accordion.
The number of racist incidents has risen, last year reaching almost 1,000, but this has not halted a steady flow of immigrants.
Their arrival has given Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland a more cosmopolitan and international aspect, to the point that foreign accents are now routine rather than unusual.
The Romanians, in particular, have suffered from events following an international soccer match in March, when Northern Ireland played Poland at Windsor Park.
The game was followed by widespread disturbances involving Northern Ireland supporters and fans who had travelled from Poland. A number of people, including 11 police officers, were injured in the violence. In the days that followed the homes of both Poles and Romanians came under attack, starting the sequence which culminated in recent events.
Last Thursday the first of a series of incidents was reported. On Monday a rally held in support of the Romanians was abused and attacked by a small number of youths who threw bottles and made Nazi salutes. On Tuesday night, Romanian families gathered at one house, saying they no longer felt safe in their homes.
Malcolm Morgan, pastor at the church which housed them overnight, said he was happy to help. He added: "It's a sad indictment of our society, but hopefully we can show them a different side to Northern Ireland and a caring side of Northern Ireland." Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who visited the leisure centre, said it was a "totally shameful episode". He added: "We need a collective effort to face down these criminals in society who are quite clearly intent on preying on vulnerable women and children."
First Minister Peter Robinson described the events as deplorable, and health minister Michael McGimpsey said: "It appears to be a group of young thugs, young tearaways."
Police Superintendent Chris Noble said: "There is no authorisation by any other groups. It's a number of individuals who have taken some form of umbrage for whatever reason to people living in the community." Belfast Lord Mayor Naomi Long said: "These kinds of ugly scenes are totally unacceptable. Belfast is growing rich in diversity with people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds making this city their home. We cannot allow a small minority of people to drive people from their homes."
The authorities have arranged for the Romanians to stay in student accommodation, not far from their former homes, as a temporary measure for a week.
While the authorities say they hope they can persuade the Romanians to stay in Northern Ireland, the general sense yesterday among those affected was that they wished to leave the country.
Northern Ireland in numbers
27,000 number of immigrants to Northern Ireland between 1991 and 2007
8,000 estimated number of immigrants to Northern Ireland since EU expansion in 2007
4,900 immigrants from Poland
1,365 immigrants from Czech Republic
1,000 immigrants from Lithuania
1,000 estimated number of immigrants from Romania
900 immigrants from Slovakia
230 immigrants from Latvia
1,759,000 population of Northern Ireland
2.1 million estimated immigration to England 1991-2007