Tensions run high in Northern Ireland town over influx of Romanian migrants
A sudden influx of Romanians to a Co Antrim town has seen tensions with the local community rising rapidly in recent weeks, politicians have warned.
A Ballymena DUP MLA has claimed there are fears events could spiral out of control if paramilitaries decide to step in.
Paul Frew said he was aware of a 30-strong local group putting up posters in the town on Monday night.
He said pressing issues must be tackled before the powder keg situation blows up.
"The mood on the ground is worrying and tension is really rising," Mr Frew said.
"This is one of the biggest single issues I have had to deal with since I became a public representative and scores of my constituents have contacted me with their concerns in the past month.
"The trigger point for all of this has been the regular bus service into Ballymena on Saturday evenings, where a bus company brings Romanian people and packages one way and the other. It represents the visual manifestation of this problem."
A Facebook group called Concerned Residents of Ballymena, which has 2,600 members, provides a platform for people to air their grievances over the current situation. No site monitors were available for comment.
But despite the backlash on social media and subsequent fears that "things will bubble over in the wrong direction", Mr Frew has urged angry natives to desist from vigilante behaviour.
"I have to stress that no one should be taking the law into their own hands," the DUP MLA said. "That will bring people into jeopardy. People will get hurt and end up in misery over the head of it.
"But I see a very real vacuum of fear and ignorance and concern out there, from working class people like myself to lecturers at universities. They're all coming to me and saying the influx of migrants can't continue, this can't be managed."
One primary school has turned away 26 foreign national children this week.
And some people have linked the migrant issue to a spike in reported crime in Ballymena over the last six months.
Two multi-agency meetings - comprising the Education Authority, PSNI, Mid and East Antrim Council, Northern Health Trust and Housing Executive - have taken place this week.
But Mr Frew, who was also present, said the Jobs and Benefits Office, private landlords and recruitment companies "who must be part of this conversation were missing from those meetings".
"People are concerned with human trafficking, cars not being taxed or insured, rising crime and migrants going to the toilet in public places, namely parks where there's young people," he said.
"One primary school principal told me that 26 foreign national children have been turned away since Monday. This is the situation on the ground. This is what we need to address."
TUV leader Jim Allister, who also attended the meetings, confirmed there are real fears in the town about the developing situation.
"I'm concerned that matters could escalate," he said. "The police told us that in the past six months from April there was an increase of 19% in reported crime in Ballymena.
"It's very important the proper law enforcement agencies demonstrate they are in control and on top of any developing situation because I'd be fearful that the paramilitaries would see this as an opportunity to assert themselves."
A Mid and East Antrim Borough Council spokeswoman said a multi-agency meeting was held with a number of political representatives in order to discuss community concerns.
"It was agreed that a fact sheet with information from each agency addressing any concerns would be circulated with political leaders by Friday in order to ensure that the community were advised of the relevant facts and to dispel any mistruths," she said.
The PSNI confirmed that from April 1 to September 21 there had been a 19% increase in crime in the Ballymena area, which amounts to 299 incidents.
Superintendent Darrin Jones said: "Police are part of a multi-agency approach to address community concerns in the Ballymena area. Everyone who lives, works or visits Ballymena, or any town or city in Northern Ireland, has the right to be treated fairly and with dignity.
"Where there are reports or evidence of criminality from any part of the community we will thoroughly investigate and I would encourage anyone who witnesses a crime or has information about criminal activity to contact us on the non-emergency number 101."