Nearly 3,000 people have been left homeless in Northern Ireland over the past decade because of intimidation by paramilitary groups, new Housing Executive figures have revealed.
Last year, 433 people claimed that they had been forced out of their homes because of paramilitary intimidation – though the Housing Executive accepted the claims of 325 of them as genuine.
Meanwhile, 77 people sought rehousing from the executive because of anti-social behaviour; 39 did so because of sectarianism fears, while 23 did so because they claimed they had suffered racial abuse.
The statistics emerged at Stormont after Green Party MLA Clare Bailey sought information on the scale of intimidation being carried out by paramilitaries nearly two decades after the Good Friday Agreement.
Saying that the numbers have remained at “a fairly constant level”, the Housing Executive said: “It is obviously very concerning that in 2016 many families are still coming to us for help because they feel insecure.”
Recent gun attacks in Belfast will have caused a new rush of evacuees, the Green MLA warned: "These are huge numbers for a small area, Northern Ireland is not that big," she declared.
“We have a shortage of social housing. We need to look at whether the system is just moving people around. Are we just moving people from area to area? Have any of them had to leave the country?
“I would encourage anyone experiencing intimidation on any of the grounds, to report it to the police and housing executive and seek relevant support,” she went on.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
However, a Belfast-based human rights group, Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) which works to help intimidation victims says the official numbers are "the tip of the iceberg".
"We find the whole system of assessing whether someone is intimidated and then allocated a suitable home is one that really doubles down on the trauma that they are facing," said PPR's Mr Sean Brady.
Some people have “been literally burned from their homes and have not been awarded intimidation status because presumably they have not verified a paramilitary threat”, he went on.
The Housing Executive makes its final decisions after getting reports from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and a charity, Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO).
However, Mr Brady said the Housing Executive should “start making decisions themselves” on “the evidence put in front of them, not based on an analysis of whether or not there was a paramilitary organisation involved”.
“If a woman and her kids can show evidence that their home was burned to the ground and had to flee then in our book they have been intimidated from their home whether or not that was an organised threat to their house or random,” he added.
"The threshold of evidence is the problem. If you don't know who has set fire to your home and written 'Kill All Taigs' on your wall how do you know if it was sectarian, done by paramilitaries or both?
“A young mummy we are dealing with in those circumstances will not be seen as intimidated unless a paramilitary threat is verified. There are far more cases of people who present as intimidated than are accepted as intimidated,” he went on.
Saying that it is "shocking" that so many people are still facing intimidation, People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said: "This has nothing to do with improving communities or lifting them out of misery and isolation."
CASE STUDY: ‘I didn’t think something like this would happen to me’
Danielle (26), a Catholic from Belfast, who suffers from depression and anxiety, is sleeping on her mother’s sofa after an arson attack at her home in the Protestant area of the Ligoniel Road.
Her five-year-old son, who has just started primary school, sleeps on an inflatable mattress. They are being supported by PPR as they attempt to get a new home through the Housing Executive.
“I moved into my house in May. In October someone put a bin on fire at the front door and wrecked everything. ‘Kill All Taigs’ (KAT) was sprayed on the wall and a picture of a smiley face on the window,” she told The Irish Times.
“I didn’t think something like this would happen to me. I was distraught. A lot of money had gone into decorating it and everything was in it, my child’s toys, clothes and shoes, everything.”
Since then she has been living with her mother: “I am worse because I know (my son) is out of his routine. He wants to know where his stuff is, why he doesn’t have a bedroom and why we can’t go back to the house?”
Urging the Housing Executive to make a decision quickly on her file, she said: “I don’t who it was that started the fire. It’s frightening. It could have been kids, it could have been paramilitaries, I don’t know.”
Claimed reason for homelessness: Intimidation by paramilitaries. The numbers in brackets represents the claims accepted by the Housing Executive.
2011/2012: 326 (213)
2012/2013: 387 (292)
2013/2014: 472 (293)
2014/2015: 433 (312)
2015/2016: 433 (325)