Northern Ireland needs to wake up and accept that racist hate crime is a growing problem in the region and that it requires urgent action to stamp it out, a senior police commander has warned.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr stressed the need for long-term, politically-backed resolutions as he announced the setting up of a dedicated reporting helpline for victims.
The service has been introduced in the wake of a recent upsurge in racist attacks in Belfast, which have seen foreign nationals assaulted and their property targeted.
The PSNI has blamed loyalist paramilitaries from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) for orchestrating a number of the attacks that have taken place in the south and east of the city, but officers have made clear that other incidents have had no paramilitary link.
Outlining details of the helpline - which can be accessed by calling the PSNI's non-emergency 101 number - Mr Kerr said:
"Sadly what we are seeing in both the graffiti and some of the attacks is that any form of difference at all seems to be good enough for some of these thugs to decide there is a justification for actually engaging in some of these attacks.
"It's very insidious, it's unacceptable, we need to wake up to it and accept that it is a problem for us and we need to do something about it quickly so we provide a long-term resolution to this issue."
Earlier, Mr Kerr said: "This is an issue that a new Northern Ireland is going to have to get to grips with and it is going to have to get to grips with it quickly and it's going to have to require a joined-up, long-term response from politics, from policing and from broader civic society collectively.
"This is an issue that we need to take seriously and we need to start to do something about it in providing a long-term solution to the problems of racism within Northern Irish society."
The PSNI has already set up a dedicated team of ten detectives to deal with the spate of racist attacks.
Emphasising that many crimes go unreported, Mr Kerr said he hoped the helpline, which can translate 50 languages, would encourage more victims to come forward. He said wider society also had a responsibility to be the police's "eye and ears" to help them crack down on the perpetrators.
The senior officer said it was hard to identify a single factor that was behind the increase in attacks, highlighting that issues around social housing, sectarianism and unresolved political grievances within communities all played a part.
"There is a range of motivations from a range of individuals and organisations right across Northern Ireland involved in this," he said.
"It would be very difficult and far too one dimensional frankly to point to one specific motivation for this - there are a range."
But he reiterated the police view that the UVF had co-ordinated a number of the incidents.
"We have made it very clear that in some parts of south and east Belfast we think there has been orchestration, particularly by the UVF, but not for all the hate crimes in south and east Belfast," he said.
"Certainly it would be too simplistic to say that is the sole reason for the increase in racist hate crime across Belfast or even across Northern Ireland."
Mr Kerr rejected any suggestion the UVF effectively had a licence to terrorise local communities.
"I wouldn't agree with that in any way, shape or form," he said.
"We have been running significant operations in Belfast against the UVF."
He added: "We will keep up a campaign of attrition working against the UVF in Belfast, or any other paramilitary organisation who happens to be involved - including dissident groups - who are involved in criminality across Northern Ireland. We will keep working as hard as we can to make sure their impact on local communities is mitigated and reduced.
"But policing alone is not going to make this issue go away - we need long term, sensible, joined-up thinking about a number of legacy issues in Northern Ireland which policing in the future can't resolve of itself."