Concerns mount at racial unrest in northern England

Burnley, hit by two nights of riots, is the fourth town to erupt in recent months.

British police were meeting with community leaders in the northern English town of Burnley yesterday, following two nights of clashes between white and South Asian youths.

The unrest makes Burnley the fourth northern town in the past three months where racially motivated violence has flared, as a far-right political party builds support in the region.

Observers warn that if Britain's Labour government fails to improve race relations, such groups could move further into mainstream politics.

Ten days before Britain's June 7 general election, Oldham, a mill town near Burnley, became the focus of the country's worst race-based riots in 15 years. Asian youths armed with petrol bombs burned a pub, ironically named "Live and Let Live." Fifteen police were injured in the fray and 17 people were arrested.

On polling day, candidates for the British National Party (BNP) - which opposes immigration and supports racial segregation - won more than 10 percent of the vote in Oldham, posting strong gains among majority whites in the town's two constituencies.

"That was a warning shot across the body politic of Oldham," says Jim Williams, editor of the Oldham Chronicle. While not enough to win a seat in Parliament, he says, a similar result in next year's local election would give the BNP five council seats - enabling it to hold the balance of power in town hall.

On Easter, tensions between white and Asian youths boiled over in the town of Bradford. And on June 5, police were attacked with bricks and bottles in Leeds.

The Burnley riots followed an attack on an Indian taxi driver by a gang of white men Saturday. On Sunday night, some 200 youths threw rocks and bottles and set shops and cars on fire.

"It would be a shame for Burnley to be tagged as another Oldham, because it is not," Burnley's deputy mayor, Rafique Malik, told reporters.

But while the incidents varied in scale, they share some common features and contributory causes, observers say. All took place in northern towns that built their industrial base on textiles, and where ethnic minorities arrived as unskilled immigrant labor for an industry that has since collapsed.

Chris Myant, a spokesman for Britain's Commission for Racial Equality, says, "What we have seen are events in the north of England, where the [minority] community is Bangladeshi and Pakistani." Unemployment and social deprivation in Oldham is estimated to be about 5 percent among the general population, Mr. Myant says, but among the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community, the figure runs 25 percent to 30 percent.

Within minority communities, there are a range of feelings. "Right-wing extremists and members of the National Front [a right-wing party] have been trying to stir trouble.... We had tried to avoid trouble, but when it came to our doorstep, people defended themselves and police were extremely heavy-handed in their response," says Ashid Ali, chairman of the Oldham Bangladeshi Youth Association.

In Bradford, a Hindu businessman told London's Guardian newspaper that "Muslim thugs" looted his pharmacy. "I challenge any statement by police that this was not caused by interreligious problems."

Martin Wainwright, northern correspondent for the Guardian, says, "These second- and third- generation Asians are not prepared to take what the two previous generations took, and that's very noticeable."

Oldham, in particular, has seen an unprecedented degree of segregation, both in housing and in education, says Mr. Williams, with Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and whites each living in separate areas and sending their children to separate schools.

Failure of the communities to mix is also a feature of Bradford, where a recent report warned of increasing "ghettoization" in the city. Leeds is more of a mosaic.

During the campaign, Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Oldham after the riots, but declined to comment on the city's problems. Since then, Home Secretary David Blunkett has met with community leaders.

But Williams, of the Oldham Chronicle, says urgent and concrete measures are needed to arrest troublemakers, improve housing, break down segregation, and enhance opportunity. If not, he warns, far-right groups could make increasing inroads into mainstream politics.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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