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Strategy to resolve divisive asylum seeker problem shy of joined-up Coalition thinking

Lack of urgency among housing officials and ‘unwillingness to recognise scale of problem’ within housing department cited as a brake on progress

Last week’s publication of the Department of Integration’s revised strategy for housing asylum seekers may have prompted some in Government to believe this crisis was finally under control.

The document proposes the provision of 35,000 beds by 2028 through a mix of State-owned accommodation and commercially run emergency housing. It includes plans to “rebuild confidence” among the general public with “fair and equal distribution” of accommodation across the State. The strategy also commits to ending the use of “unsuitable accommodation options” such as “the sole hotel remaining in a given town”.

While lacking in shorter-term solutions, the strategy is coherent and well thought out. However, the State’s almost total reliance on one small department to oversee a national crisis, coupled with a lack of co-operation and momentum from other Government departments, means short- and long-term plans for housing asylum seekers remain chaotic and, in many ways, unworkable.

The plan says “cross-Government collaboration” is needed to ensure a fairer distribution of housing and that building on State lands remains “somewhat dependent on what lands/properties are offered by departments/agencies”. In short, the Department of Housing should take a leading role in this process.


One senior official underlined a lack of urgency among housing officials and “unwillingness to recognise the scale of the problem” within the housing department, adding that acquiring land for building remains “an uphill battle”. Any land that is made available tends to be specified for housing Ukrainians — finding accommodation for international protection applicants is “exceptionally difficult”, said the official.

Another source said the Government’s reliance on a very small group of civil servants to determine a national housing policy for asylum seekers and Ukrainians would never work.

Department of Integration staff are reportedly very satisfied with the Department of Public Expenditure’s financial commitments to support the new housing strategy and cover the projected €5 billion it is projected to cost to provide beds for asylum seekers over the next 20 years. However, experts agree that leadership from the Department of the Taoiseach, and central Government oversight, could actually be the key to solving this crisis.

Enter Fine Gael leader Simon Harris. The incoming taoiseach vowed last week to install “firm but fair” immigration controls when he takes over the top job next week. While some officials are sceptical of the change Harris can make in what may be a short term in office, others say he has the drive and ambition to lead a new immigration policy based on effective community and civic engagement, proper housing dispersal and cross-Government communication.

Cabinet Ministers were told last week that the establishment of a dedicated migrant accommodation agency is now being considered. A quick scan through the State’s history of refugee policy reveals such an agency existed 30 years ago. The Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) Refugee Agency was established in the 1990s to provide housing and support services to programme refugees. While this agency dealt with significantly smaller numbers, they successfully communicated with communities countrywide to provide housing solutions, recalls UCD professor of migration and social policy Bryan Fanning. DFA approached migrant housing and integration through a “social justice” lens, but the Department of Justice, which took over the portfolio in 2000, regarded it as “a security issue”. Two decades later, many in Government still regard it in this light.

The establishment of a similar agency, which could approach the issue “strategically and with clever politics” under Harris’s leadership, might solve the rolling crisis, says Fanning.

Plans for a refugee agency resurfaced nearly seven years ago when a group of concerned citizens, including a leading businessman and retired High Court judge, brought proposals to a senior government official for a special unit to lead on migrant accommodation and integration under the auspices of the Department of An Taoiseach. The proposal was acknowledged but never properly revisited.

A dedicated refugee agency could also find a way to reduce the vast sums of money being handed over to private contractors to house migrants. Department of Integration data published this week reveals the State paid nearly €2.13 billion on migration accommodation last year — €640 million on asylum seekers and €1.49 billion on Ukrainians. Among the recipients of these payments was Dublin’s Citywest hotel, which received €53.7 million.

The Government estimates that between 13,000 and 16,000 asylum seekers annually will arrive in the country seeking protection from now on. Plans are already in motion to secure empty office blocks for conversion into accommodation units as a short-term solution. The recent transformation of the Zurich office building in the suburb of Blackrock, Dublin, which has capacity for 350 people, is already being quietly heralded as one of the success stories of this new plan.

But with 1,529 asylum-seeking men still homeless, and more boats on the move across the Mediterranean as summer approaches, a handful of empty office blocks cannot solve this emergency.

As one senior official puts it: “Migration is here to stay. This is not a one-year problem, it’s not a 10-year problem. This is a 20-year issue.”