Up to 20 families moved to temporary accommodation after repeated attacks on their houses
Romanian families forced to flee their homes in Belfast because of racist attacks have been temporarily rehoused, but many said they wanted to leave Northern Ireland.
More than 100 Romanians had to seek shelter in a church hall last night after suffering repeated intimidation, including bottles being thrown through their windows.
The families, who are members of the Roma ethnic group, were given shelter at the O-Zone sports complex in the city today, and Stormont's social development minister, Margaret Ritchie, said they were to be offered emergency lodgings tonight. It is understood that they were later moved to student accommodation in the Queen's University area, which has been made available for a week.
Gordon Brown condemned the attacks, saying: "I hope the authorities are able to take all the action necessary to protect them." Belfast's lord mayor, Naomi Long, said the attacks had brought shame on the city.
A Romanian mother of two sheltering at the O-Zone said the families were terrified. The woman, who gave her first name, Maria, said everyone was adamant they wanted to return to Romania. She said attacks had been intensifying over the past two weeks, with youths threatening her and her children. Other people spoke of men armed with guns telling them to leave the country or face being shot.
"We are OK, we are safe here now," she said. "But we want to go home because right now we are not safe here [in Northern Ireland]. We want to go back home to Romania, everybody right now does. I want to go home because I have here two kids and I want my kids to be safe."
Belfast's small community of Romanians grew noticeably grew about eight months ago. The streets from which the Romanians fled are on the border between the city's multi-racial university district and the loyalist working class Village/Donegall Road area. On Monday night, a number of young men from the Village area threw bottles and stones at an anti-racist protest on the Lisburn Road called to show solidarity with the Romanians. The mob chanted Combat 18 slogans, although security sources in Northern Ireland said there was no evidence the neo-Nazi terror group had organised cells in the Greater Belfast area.
The two main loyalist paramilitary groups, the UVF and UDA, have condemned the attacks and said none of their members were involved.
The deputy first minister, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, 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".
Anna Lo, an assembly member for the Alliance party in south Belfast, said the families were "very frightened" and many would prefer to return to their homeland rather than remain in Belfast.
"They are really very frightened," she said. "The women, when they were talking to me yesterday, they were really upset, tears in their eyes and said, 'You know we love it here, we'd like to live here, but we're too scared.'"
Some within the Village/Donegall Road community have tried to make a stand against the aggressors. A poster on a boarded-up window at 14 Belgravia Avenue, a three-storey house occupied until Monday by several Romanian families, read: "Village says No to racist attacks." A similar poster nearby was torn down by a woman on her way to work, who declined to comment.