Belfast racists force Romanians to hide in church

Belfast, UK - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Wednesday condemned a wave of racist attacks in Northern Ireland which forced more than 100 Romanians to flee their homes and shelter in a church hall.

The families, including one with a five-day-old baby girl, spent the night in the church hall in Belfast after the situation came to a head on Monday when youths disrupted an anti-racism rally, throwing bottles and making Nazi salutes.

Asked to condemn the attacks during his weekly question and answer session with lawmakers at the House of Commons, Brown said: "Yes indeed, I hope that the authorities are able to take all the action that's necessary".

Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the attackers were "racist criminals" who should be arrested and prosecuted.

"Those people who engage in these types of attacks... are people who need to be isolated within the community, need to be brought to book, brought to arrest," he said.

"These are criminals who wish to prey on society and in many cases on the weakest sections of society."

An emergency meeting was to be held in Belfast later Wednesday to see what could be done to help the families, many of whom now say they want to go home. They have now been taken to shelter at a nearby leisure centre.

McGuinness said he hoped they could be persuaded they did not have to go back to Romania.

But one mother, who did not give her name, said: "I just want to go home now. I feel very bad because I don't have a home now, I have a baby and it's not nice. I don't feel good here anymore."

Pastor Malcolm Morgan, whose church gave the families refuge, told ITV: "Trouble was brewing for a few days. There have been stones thrown and windows smashed. It is a small group of racist thugs."

There have been racial tensions in the area ever since trouble broke out around Northern Ireland's 3-2 win over Poland in the 2010 football World Cup qualifier in Belfast at the end of March.

Any Romanian national can come and work in Britain since both countries are European Union member states, although they have to sign up to a worker registration scheme.

Romania was one of the most recent countries to join the EU in 2007.