The plight of Polish Catholics in Northern Ireland's Derry

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Polish migrants and others have been subjected to racist attacks in Northern Ireland. The province is part of the United Kingdom - one of the countries which did not restrict labour movement when the EU enlarged last year. So Northern Ireland has seen migrant workers coming mainly from the former communist countries of Central Europe. But with no real history of immigration and its own sectarianism and prejudices deeply rooted - it seems Northern Ireland isn't ready to welcome the thousands of newcomers.

As a result, migrant workers are being blamed for many of the provinces problems and treated like scapegoats. On a number of occasions they have been subject to racist and sectarian attacks.

Called "Derry" by Catholics and "Londonderry" by Protestants, it is a picturesque city of 100,000 inhabitants located 50 miles west of Belfast. Divided by the Foyle River it is inhabited by Protestants and Catholics living on each side of the river. It is also home to about 500 Poles as well as a large group of Latvians and Lithuanians They are said to be good workers who blend in well but were visibly brought to the attention of the protestant minority in the region after the death of Pope John Paul II. In the Foyle Meats Factory in the suburbs of Derry, Poles became victims of racist and sectarian attacks for their catholic beliefs. From April to August of this year there have been 11 incidents in Derry alone. Local resident are aware of them. One of Poles who became such a victim was 24-year old Lukasz from Lodz in central Poland. He has been living in Northern Ireland for 10 months and is now employed as a construction worker. He was beaten up by a group Irishmen while coming home from work in Lisburn, near Belfast in June. He still has scars and remembers the day very clearly.

"Was I ever the target a racist attack? Yes, I was. I was coming back from work with my friends through the local park when a group of five Irishmen approached us. They were suddenly joined by ten more people and started beating us up with wooden planks and anything else they could find. I was taken in an ambulance into a nearby hospital where I waited 4 hours for inspection. I often hear of similar attacks happening near Belfast. Is it about religion? Yes, it's not about whether you are Polish or Lithuanian but whether you are Catholic."

David Wilson, a journalist with the "Irish News" agrees. He believes that the attacks are not directed at any particular ethnic group but at foreigners as a whole.

"There are people here so involved in their own tribal politics that anyone entering into the fray from outside will be subjected to that same tribal main set. We have never had a real history of immigration. It's always been emigration. And again, I think it's lack of knowledge, lack of understanding that gives raise to racial gain of prejudice as we're seeing on these attacks, you know. I hope that the situation will improve. Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles - are all subjected to this ignorance shown by a minority of people here. I think it's not specifically because people are Poles, it's simply because they are deemed foreigners."

Photo: European Commission
The problem has long been recognized by local authorities. Police from the Foyle Region prepared a special partnership protocol aimed at identifying problems connected with migrant workers. Local politicians also joined the campaign. Mark Durken is a local MP and leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland. His party has also worked closely with the Equality Commission established as part of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

"We have asked the Equality Commission and other authorities to specifically look at the position of migrant workers and to commission some particular studies to get a picture of what is going on there, and the workers, because we can all report these individual cases and we can all highlight some of these individual incidents. But what we need is the equality commission and other authorities working in this employment field to investigate due report of the sort of practices that have been on, set standards and come up with policies that will intervene on behalf of fairness for migrant workers."

Cases of hate crime have also been condemned by Derry city mayor Lynn Fleming who stresses that the city still welcomes foreign workers.

"As a city we need to welcome people coming here because of their own circumstances in their homeland. So, I think, as a city we need to embrace our Polish community and anyone coming to this city and help to make their stay here as comfortable and safe as possible. Unfortunately, there is a small minority in every society, and unfortunately we have that here in Derry as well. And as a group of people who, for whatever their own personal ideology, they don't seem to accept that these people can come here and work. They feel that it somehow infringes on their lifestyle. I'm thankful that this is not shared by the majority of the people in this city. I say, welcome, openly welcome! Not just the Polish community, but anyone having to come here."

One possible way of increasing awareness of the issue of migrants is through "Anti-Racist Workplace Week" - a campaign recently launched in Northern Ireland. Among its organizers are the Northern Ireland Trade Unions Movement, the Police Service and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Their aim is to educate the local community on how migrant workers contribute to the economy and that they should be given exactly the same rights as everyone else in Northern Ireland.