Last week, Polish flags were burned in various locales across the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, in what local Poles described as the latest incident of abuse against their community.

The Polish Association of Northern Ireland even characterized the bonfires as a form of racist intimidation, despite the fact that Poles are white, European and Christian.

The Polish community embrace and respect all traditions here in Northern Ireland, but we find this behavior totally appalling and offensive,” said Maciek Bator of the Polish Association in a statement.

The Polish flag is a symbol of freedom, independence and peace for the 30,000 Polish people living in Northern Ireland and around 80 million across the globe. By burning the Polish flag and other symbols, some members of the local communities were able to express their strong political views and promote anti-Polish sentiments.”

Bator added that he wants local authorities to find the culprits and punish them.

For many participants, especially the youth and young people, the burning of the Polish flag could become a clear signal to expand hate to other aspects of life,” he said. “There is already a high level of hate-motivated incidents on members of the Polish community. We call on all political and community leaders in Northern Ireland to take urgent action to stop hatred and bigotry.

Anna Lo, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and herself an immigrant from Hong Kong, also condemned the flag burning.

It is completely unacceptable for people to burn any flag,” she said.

“The people who burnt these Polish flags are nothing more than bigots. It is the actions of a hateful person who would do such a thing. I would urge community leaders to encourage the people involved in the building of these bonfires to ensure that nothing like a flag or an effigy is placed on them. This is clearly racist behavior, which is doing the image of Northern Ireland a lot of damage.

Poles have streamed into Northern Ireland by the thousands since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, making it easy for Polish citizens to cross national borders in search of work. Another 150,000 Poles currently reside in the Republic of Ireland.

Dr. Marta Kempny, visiting research fellow at Queen's University in Belfast, said most Polish migrants came to Northern Ireland for economic reasons.

“There was a high unemployment rate in Poland at that time, and many opportunities in the UK,” she said. “This [migration] has slowed down since the global economic crisis of 2007-2008. Moreover, many Polish migrants returned home.”

Kempny noted that Polish migrants in Northern Ireland principally work in such blue-collar jobs as cleaners, construction workers, warehouses, or in hospitality services. They are also often employed in health care as nurses, hospital staff, dentists and doctors.

Other immigrants have also poured into Northern Ireland in recent years, creating tensions beyond the traditional Catholic-Protestant conflict familiar for so long in Ulster.

Apparently, some xenophobic Northern Irishmen resent the influx of any foreigners, regardless of race or ethnicity, with Poles a particular target due to their large numbers.

Last October, a pipe bomb was left on the window of a Polish couple in an estate in Antrim. There have been literally hundreds of similar incidents against Poles over the past decade or so, including assault and graffiti.

Kempny thinks the mistreatment of Poles in Northern Ireland should be characterized as “ethnic abuse” rather than “racism.”

“Polish people find themselves in a territory marked by violent history of the Troubles,” she said, referring to the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics.

“The role of religion is crucial component of ethnic identity in this area. As Polish people are predominantly Catholic, they have been hoovered up into the system of existing social classifications.”

She also believes class anxiety and economic uncertainty plays a role in the resentment of Poles.

“In light of the deepening socio-economic crisis, the old antagonisms re-emerge,” she said. “In a way, I believe that the Polish migrants have been treated as scapegoats and became an object of people’s frustration and anxiety with the current situation in Northern Ireland.”