RACE hate crimes in just one area of south Belfast have more than doubled over the past five years, amid concerns over a spate of fresh attacks over the summer.
Analysis by The Detail has found that race hate crimes in Botanic, which includes the predominantly loyalist areas of Sandy Row and Donegall Pass, have risen from 70 in 2017/18, to 147 in 2022/23.
For more than a decade, Botanic has consistently topped the list of areas in Northern Ireland with the highest number of race crimes.
Of the 880 race hate offences recorded in the north in 2022/23, around one in six were recorded in Botanic. And of those attacks, 80% took place in two council wards - Central and Blackstaff.
The area has seen a series of attacks against immigrant-owned businesses over the summer.
And at an anti-racism protest earlier this week, which was held close to the scene of the attacks, protesters said they were pelted with cans and bottles.
One shop owner in the area, who is from an immigrant background, told The Detail that loyalist paramilitaries tried to extort money following a race hate attack in November last year.
The victim, who was too frightened to be identified, said a man was arrested after he came into the shop and shouted racist abuse.
After the arrest, three men approached the owner, told them not to call police in future, and tried to extract protection money.
“I was shocked,” the owner said.
“I told them I’m a small business, I’m struggling, I don’t have money to give.”
A man from the area, who frequented the shop, told the owner that the three men were from loyalist group the UVF.
“After that I’m scared. I haven’t paid money, but I won't call the police now, in case they come back,” the owner said.
They said that many businesses in Botanic pay protection money.
“Most of the businesses in the area have this problem, men come and ask for money, they offer protection, and if you don’t they make it worse for you,” they said.
“The police, they don’t do anything.
“I want to just explain why people don't report or call the police.
“We can solve these problems, but we can't hide things - we have to be honest.”
They said paramilitaries often use children to attack shops in the area.
“They send kids to do things, they are using kids, and everyone knows it,” the owner said.
“Don’t punish kids, I feel sorry for the kids here doing bad stuff, because adults push them to do it.”
The PSNI was asked about the shop owner’s claims of intimidation by the UVF, but did not respond.
In recent weeks, several businesses owned by immigrants have been targeted.
On August 18, a computer shop on Sandy Row was destroyed in a racially-motivated arson attack.
Mohammed Idris, who is originally from Sudan, said his premises had been targeted in five attacks over two months - all of which were reported to police.
His shop had only recently moved to premises on Sandy Row after operating on Great Victoria Street for eight years without any issues.
“I lost everything, everything in that premises,” he said.
Mr Idris said he and other business owners from immigrant backgrounds felt unsafe.
“We are giving life to these shops, we are contributing to the economy, we pay taxes, we share with the locals, whenever they need us we are here,” he said.
“But still we are not feeling safe.”
On September 17, a grocery shop on Donegall Road, in Botanic, owned by Syrian-born Ahmad Alkhamran, was also destroyed in an arson attack.
He said his shop had been subjected to four racially-motivated attacks in just two weeks.
In one attack, his shutters were sprayed with the message ‘Local houses (and) shops only!’
"I have worked for four months, the shop was to open next week,” he told the BBC.
"I have saved for seven years – in just a few minutes it was all gone.”
On Tuesday, more than a hundred people attended an anti-racism rally in Shaftesbury Square in south Belfast, close to where the attacks took place.
A group of people also staged a counter-protest.
Anti-racism protesters said they were attacked by a group of up to 15 children who threw cans and stones.
Ange Cruz, who attended the rally, told The Detail that the counter-protest had led to increased tensions.
“There was also a guy circling around the people protesting for an hour - shouting things about immigrants being rapists,” she said.
PSNI Superintendent Finola Dornan said the children involved were thought to be under ten.
"It is not believed that anyone was struck and no injuries have been reported to police," she said.
"Neighbourhood officers will be seeking to follow up with those involved in the coming days.”
Botanic is one of the most racially diverse areas in Northern Ireland, with 26.8% of residents born abroad or from an ethnic minority background.
Following the recent spate of attacks, several politicians were asked if the attacks were coordinated and if they believed paramilitaries were involved.
DUP South Belfast MLA Edwin Poots, Ulster Unionist deputy leader Robbie Butler, and former Ulster Unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast, Bob Stoker, all told the BBC last week that the attacks were the fault of individuals and not part of a trend.
“We don’t believe there is an organisation behind it,” Mr Poots said.
Mr Stoker said he had spoken to many people in the area about the attack on Mr Alkhamran’s business and “no one seems to know anything about it”.
Mr Butler told The Detail that he condemned all hate crime, and that it was "neither right, helpful or valid to label a community due to the acts of individuals".
He said those living in areas where attacks are more common needed help “to feel more secure in being able to share information with the police or other agencies”.
Mr Butler added that paramilitaries “have scarred our communities for decades” and any links to hate crimes “should be pursued with vigour by the PSNI”.
The Detail asked the PSNI what it is doing to tackle racist attacks in south Belfast, and whether it is investigating possible paramilitary involvement.
A spokeswoman said the force is investigating several lines of enquiry.
She said a ‘problem solving folder’ has been opened, which is used when the force sees emerging trends of hate crimes in specific areas.
PSNI Superintendent Finola Dornan said: “We are committed to providing support to victims of hate crime and bringing offenders to justice.
“There is no place for hate. Local police are working with focus on recent hate crimes in south Belfast.
“We do this by working closely with the local community, stakeholders and partner agencies to address issues and prevent harm.”
The Detail asked the PSNI how many race hate crimes in total included paramilitary involvement.
However, the force said it did not record those figures.
In June, an Equality Commission report on racism in Northern Ireland found that many people were reluctant to report race hate attacks to police “because they fear triggering an escalation in racist behaviour and this can be due to a concern that the behaviour is linked to or endorsed by paramilitary groups”.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster last year that loyalist and republican paramilitaries are continuing to extort money from businesses.
“We have also seen exploitation of new communities in Northern Ireland from ethnic minority backgrounds,” he said.
Daniel Holder, director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, said victims and anti-racism groups have long raised concerns about loyalist paramilitary involvement in racist attacks.
“Statistics should be collated and made available in order to form strategies to tackle racist hate crime,” he said.
Rise in race hate crimes
Race hate crimes across Northern Ireland have risen by more than 44% in just five years, with 609 recorded in 2017/18, compared to 880 last year.
Twasul Mohammed, from Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), said the recent spate of attacks in south Belfast was “not isolated”.
“Victims have come forward many times and the authorities are failing to properly investigate and respond to the seriousness of the situation,” she said.
“We support residents who are living in fear of paramilitaries and far right groups protesting outside their homes.”
Mr Holder said it was important not to correlate higher ethnic diversity with racist attacks.
Around 30% of residents of Dungannon, Co Tyrone, are of a migrant or minority background according to figures from the 2021 census.
But in 2022/23, only eight race hate crimes were recorded in the area.
Mr Holder said “ethnic minorities do not bring racism to an area”.
“Racism is an ideology, it takes both racism and people willing and organised to act on it to lead to racist attacks,” he said.