In Northern Ireland, a Wave of Immigrants Is Met With Fists
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.
“He was a big guy and he approached me, and at this point I called the police to report trespass as he was inside the gate,” Mr. Khattack said. “But he grabbed me in a headlock and began punching me and jumping on my legs. I managed to get into the house, but he followed me through the door until I got to the bathroom and there he continued to beat me.”
Mr. Khattack was treated for severe bruising and spent months on crutches. He still walks with a limp.
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.
According to a recent report by the Northern Ireland Commission for Ethnic Minorities, just 12 of 14,000 race-related crimes reported over the past five years ended in a successful prosecution.
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.”
But Patrick Yu, the executive director of the Northern Ireland Commission for Ethnic Minorities, said it is simplistic to brand certain communities intrinsically racist.
“Most of the available housing stock for private rental just happens to be in loyalist areas where there is already a wariness of outsiders and a feeling of being left behind by Catholics who they believe have benefited disproportionately from the Good Friday Agreement,” he said. “There is still huge deprivation in these areas, and I believe sectarianism and racism are two sides of the same coin — both need to be tackled.”
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.
There is also concern that casual racism and willful ignorance are pervasive, evident in the flying of a Ku Klux Klan flag in loyalist east Belfast in July. Also that month, the Ulster Rugby team apologized for a picture in which three of its players were wearing black makeup and one had chains around his neck as if he were a slave.
This summer, a fundamentalist Protestant preacher, James McConnell, drew widespread condemnation after telling his congregation that “Islam is heathen; Islam is satanic; Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.”
Anna Lo, the only ethnic minority representative in the Northern Ireland Assembly, recalls the night she heard the province’s first minister, Peter Robinson, speak in support of Mr. McConnell, saying “there wasn’t an ounce of hatred in his bones.”
“I was screaming at the television,” she said in an interview. “I couldn’t believe these views.”
Mr. Robinson’s remarks prompted Ms. Lo to make an emotional appearance on a popular talk show in which she said she was considering leaving the country. Ms. Lo, who was born in Hong Kong, has lived in Northern Ireland since 1984. “What kind of place are we now living in?” she said. “I feel vulnerable that when I walk on the street I might be attacked.”
Both men eventually apologized for their remarks.
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.
Many immigrants say the abuse is tolerated for economic reasons: Workers here can expect to earn far more than in their home countries.
Others cannot go back even if they wanted to. “I acknowledge that it is somewhat ironic that I seem to have swapped fear in my own country for another kind here,” said Suleiman Abdulahi, who fled Somalia after the outbreak of civil war there in 1991.
The new wave of immigrants has certainly not brought safety in numbers.
“It’s my home, but I don’t feel like a very welcome resident,” said Ms. Olorunda, whose broad accent is pure Northern Ireland.
“When more people began to arrive I was excited at first,” she said, “but then the attacks began to move from verbal to physical and I began to think this isn’t a good thing, after all.”
Ms. Olorunda said she has endured a lifetime of racism and stays in Northern Ireland mainly to look after her mother, who she said never recovered from the loss of her husband. He died in 1980 when an Irish Republican Army bomb exploded on a train.
In a twist that shows just how small this society can be, Ms. Olorunda’s mother, a nurse, met the badly disfigured man responsible for her husband’s death in a hospital some years later. She accepted his apology, even though she had been left alone to bring up three young daughters.
Although born and raised here, Ms. Olorunda said she and her sister were thinking of joining their other sibling in London.
“I love the people, the humor, the sense of space,” she said. “But my sister and I have always said we wouldn’t end up as two old ladies in Northern Ireland.”