Emails reveal health chiefs' fears over 'exploitation' of Belfast Roma
THE extent of health chiefs' concerns over alleged "exploitation" of south Belfast's Romanian community are revealed in documents obtained by The Irish News.
The Belfast health trust contacted the PSNI and Stormont after whistleblowers raised the alarm about "exploitative and possibly criminal activity" by an organisation called the Romanian Roma Community Association of Northern Ireland (RRCANI).
Roma families came forward claiming they were being charged "large sums of money" by RRCANI for benefits advice – and that it was "fraudulently filling out benefits applications without their consent".
One mother found herself "caught in what might turn out to be a fraudulent claim", while a man said he was denied a service in RRCANI because he refused to pay.
None of those impacted will speak out as they "fear repercussions in NI and Romania", Belfast trust was told.
The trust had alongside Surestart been providing Early Years services for the Roma community at RRCANI's offices in the Holylands area.
But it moved the children's service from RRCANI to another location in late May, citing "concerns regarding their governance, exploitation and community control".
Officials said that "with the extent of the concerns being raised the trust felt that it was obliged to act to ensure the welfare of staff".
RRCANI strongly denies the allegations and is seeking to have services restored.
The trust also did not back a Stormont executive funding application that would have benefited RRCANI.
Last month police said they were investigating "possible wrongdoing" after anonymous allegations involving RRANI were published online.
It was claimed that Romanians in the area were being exploited, and that concerns had led to Stormont funding for the organisation not being renewed and services moved elsewhere.
RRCANI has not commented publicly, but Sinn Féin MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir took to Twitter following the allegations to publicly defend the group, saying he was "proud to stand with RRCANI".
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Following the claims, intimidating posters appeared on walls in south Belfast which named and made false allegations about two Early Years staff, who work closely with vulnerable members of the Roma community. The incident was reported to police.
The latest details are contained in a tranche of email correspondence obtained by The Irish News through a Freedom of Information request.
Concerns were raised with the Belfast trust in January when Surestart – which supports parents of young children living in disadvantaged areas – said that some of its clients claimed RRCANI had "charged them for the provision of advice services that should be free".
In an email in April, a worker warned the trust that "people and organisations have been advising me that RRCANI is involved in exploitative and possibly criminal activity".
"Our staff and staff from other organisations supporting the Roma community have been supporting families and individuals who claim to have been charged by RRCANI to fill out benefits forms," they said.
"Personally I have spoken to and supported an individual who was refused a service in RRCANI because he refused to pay.
"I have been advised that none of these families or individuals are prepared to come forward and make formal statements to the trust and that they fear repercussions in NI and Romania."
The official said they were "extremely worried about the impact of this activity" on projects.
Senior officials consulted their "whistleblowing and fraud policies" and advised the worker to "report the information to the relevant authorities".
In May, a trust manager wrote: "Roma parents have been coming to our staff, in growing numbers, to advise that people associated with RRCANI have been charging them for benefits advice and fraudulently filling out benefits applications without their consent.
"We are currently supporting a family who find themselves in this unfortunate position."
Another email said: "One mother in particular is very anxious about her benefits claim. She was supported by RRCANI in the completion of relevant documents and is now finding herself caught in what might turn out to be a fraudulent claim."
In the same month, an official said they had written to the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Social Security Agency (NISSA) to "seek their advice".
Another email said a meeting was scheduled with the PSNI's Modern Slavery Unit and Economic Fraud Unit.
But they said NISSA had advised that "to charge for advice is not illegal in itself" unless forms are being filled out "fraudulently".
In light of the concerns, the trust and Surestart agreed in May to move services from RRCANI to another south Belfast location.
A meeting was held in June between the trust, RRCANI and LORAG (Lower Ormeau Resident's Action Group) – which works with RRCANI – to discuss the decision.
In an email in July, Bryan Nelson – co-director of public health at the trust – wrote: "The trust did not take the decision to temporarily relocate services from the RRCANI building lightly but this was due to the nature of the concerns reported to us and the welfare of our staff, who have advised that they felt vulnerable."
Responding, RRCANI said it "totally denies these allegations and we note the failure to produce any evidence to support the allegations".
They said the relocation of services "without any evidence to support the allegations has caused great frustration and anger in our community" and they "see recent events as an attack on the Roma community".
When asked for an update, a Belfast trust spokesman told The Irish News a meeting between RRCANI and the trust took place recently, adding that this a was a "useful meeting and we are currently working through the actions of this meeting".
Timeline of Roma exploitation fears in south Belfast
Among the Belfast trust documentation, officials set out a timeline of events surrounding the exploitation allegations impacting south Belfast's Roma community. The following details this timeline, as well as how the controversy emerged in the public domain.
January 2018: Surestart raises concerns that clients claimed RRCANI had "charged them for the provision of advice services that should be free".
February: Officials meet with reps from NISSA (Northern Ireland Social Security Agency) fraud and benefit uptake teams to "discuss the issues we were aware of and ways of providing alternative support to the Roma community that were free and legitimate".
"Fraud were unable to confirm if they were investigating what was going on in RRCANI but they did state that they were aware of everything we had told them," they add.
April 26: A Belfast trust line manager is told in writing about concerns of "possible criminal activity taking place in RRCANI".
May 1: PSNI and NISSA are contacted about the concerns. NISSA advises in a phone call that "charging for benefit advice is not illegal and that unless people were prepared to make a statement there is nothing they can do".
May 11: Surestart emails Belfast Trust to "advise formally about their concerns about what could be exploitative practice taking place in RRCANI".
May 17: Officials advise colleagues of meeting with PSNI's Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit and Economic Fraud Unit scheduled for May 31.
May 22: Meeting with Surestart is held. "It was agreed that our presence in RRCANI was legitimising their exploitative practice, that the building was not fit for purpose and that we should temporarily remove services from RRCANI to protect our workers and the integrity of our organisations".
May 23: Meeting with LORAG (Lower Ormeau Resident's Action Group) is held to relay the trust's decision. Officials remove all confidential documents and staff from RRCANI premises.
May 25: Trust services for the Roma community resume at different premises.
August 2: Anonymous allegations involving RRCANI are published online.
August 11: PSNI confirms to The Irish News it is investigating "possible wrongdoing" following the exploitation allegations involving RRCANI.
August 23: The Irish News reports how intimidating posters appeared on walls in south Belfast which named and made false allegations about two people who had previously worked closely with the Roma community. The incident was reported to police.