The failure to find beds in the State’s reception system for people fleeing Ukraine or seeking protection here is leading to increased political pressure, internal tensions and frustrations. Solutions are hard to come by.
A total of 56,000 people will have fled to Ireland from Ukraine by the end of this month. With almost 44,000 of those seeking accommodation from the State, pressure is constant. A spokesman for the Department of Integration said: “There’s no expectation that arrivals will abate as we enter the autumn, and the outlook for the availability of suitable accommodation is extremely challenging.”
Since January, 11,680 people have sought international protection here, with 16,473 people currently accommodated by International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) across direct provision and other settings. With demands growing for answers, one Coalition insider says the “pass the buck” game is in full effect.
Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman has been the public face of the crisis, but fingers are also being pointed at Darragh O’Brien’s Department of Housing. At a Cabinet meeting six months ago, O’Brien outlined how capacity would be brought into play.
Each local authority was to be asked to develop a plan to refurbish one large building in its area. Cabinet was told named sites had been identified, including Baggot Street Hospital, and former institutions St Ita’s in Dublin and St Loman’s in Mullingar, St Brigid’s in south Dublin and St Peter’s in Castlepollard. But the output has been limited: local authorities identified 475 properties, of which 89 were sent to the Department of Integration. However, 50 were already in use, and while 1,400 beds were found in the remaining properties, many more were withdrawn or fell away for other reasons. The Department of Housing says 201 more properties are working through the process.
A clearing house was set up to assess which of 70,000 non-active planning permissions could be fast-tracked and an emergency vacant housing delivery unit was to be established. However, a call for submissions yielded just 10 proposals. This disappointing response led to a second call which has to date resulted in only another five proposals.
The Office of Public Works was tasked with developing proposals for 500 modular homes, initially due by November — but none is now expected until early next year.
Housing, one Green Party source claims, is “just not stepping up”. Another says that O’Gorman has been “a victim of his own success — everyone else took their foot off the pedal”. But there is criticism too for O’Gorman, who faces the charge that he has “not been strong enough in calling them out”.
Some parts of migration policy have been tightened as officials and Ministers worry about “pull” factors which encourage people to come to Ireland ahead of other jurisdictions. Visa-free travel into the country for asylum seekers was suspended in July. Government sources said checks on incoming IP (international protection) applicants are to be tightened up. Deportations have resumed after the Covid-enforced pause.
The Government is caught between, on the one hand, its legal and political commitments to help and, on the other, the capacity of the system it has constructed to accommodate those coming. There were discussions on Monday focused on hardening aspects of State provision for those in the system, be they Ukrainian or IP applicants.
Tightening access to medical cards, charging for consumables in hotels and charging those who remain in direct provision with permission to remain in the country were all discussed. Government sources indicated more could be examined to encourage people out of direct provision, with payments also under consideration.
Senior sources say the aim is to introduce equity — so those accessing services from within the reception system do so on a basis similar to those normally resident in Ireland. But they admit that “no country ever wants to be seen as a soft touch”, and argue that other countries limit social protection payments over time. The Government is also wary of the potential for tensions and societal division as the refugee accommodation crisis crashes headlong into pre-existing housing, homelessness and service provision dilemmas. One Government veteran argues that if simple solutions based on vacancy, modular accommodation or similar options existed, they would have been put in place already.
The idea that any one policy could be a silver bullet is “b****cks” and as for a simple solution, this source’s assessment is blunt: “It doesn’t exist.”