The announcement that Ireland’s system for accommodating refugees is again close to toppling over comes as little surprise to those on the frontline, who worry about the consequences of unprecedented pressure.
With 25 per cent of hotel beds now occupied by those seeking protection, and a wide variety of other settings playing host, the Department of Integration warned this week that another 15,000 beds are needed before Christmas. But medium term alternatives have been slow to come on-stream.
For example, the former priest training facility at Clonliffe College in Drumcondra was pledged in April, with plans to house up to 650 people there but it’s understood that the development is still some way off being available. Other options have fallen away.
“They identified buildings that would be suitable but identifying a vacant building and converting it is a different story,” says one source involved in developing solutions. “They need to just accept there’s going to be a problem for the next several years and they need to look at a longer-term plan.”
But officials in the Department of Integration have “been overwhelmed”, says the same source. Another official says: “the focus has remained almost exclusively on what we’re doing today, tomorrow, the next day”. The Irish Times understands that a list of buildings have been identified for incorporation into the effort, with dialogue ongoing — including an office block in Dublin’s East Wall called Two Gateway, and Kill Equestrian Centre in Kildare.
Optimism that more sustainable solutions are just around the corner is thin on the ground, however, and the costs of failure would be significant. “If Citywest is closed it is inevitable that some people who arrive thereafter will end up living on the streets.”
“You either do better medium or long-term planning than we have been able to do of late to dramatically increase the availability of accommodation, or you see the emergence of pretty serious humanitarian concerns,” says an official.
There is a huge amount of money being spent with the provision of accommodation rapidly being commercialised. The Department provided The Irish Times with a list of 623 providers it has contracted beds with, ranging from B&B to hostels to youth services and nursing homes. Details of some contracts published under European legislation show operators signed deals worth hundreds of thousands of euros or millions of euro. Property industry sources say some investors are considering buying up nursing homes and repurposing them for emergency accommodation.
Among those on the front line, frustrations are growing. Case workers risk becoming overloaded, and are left with a choice between providing good services, or taking on greater volumes. Filling pledged accommodation properly is complex and time-consuming.
And it is, at best, a port in a storm. “It’s not housing,” says one NGO worker involved on the ground. “You can’t put someone in [pledged accommodation], especially someone with high needs, and say the Government has fulfilled its housing mandate.”
“At some point you have to say no to new people and focus on the problem you’ve created,” says the same worker. “The Government needs to start getting smart about how they’re framing Ireland receiving refugees.”
‘We have to do this’
Nick Henderson, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council says that Ireland has to continue stepping up. “We have to do this, it’s part of a European wide effort driven by a dictator who is manipulating the situation ... This is what he wants, countries to be unsettled”
But the Government, he says, needs to rethink its approach — “better messaging to the Irish public about how and why we’re doing this” is needed, as is expanding the response beyond the Department of Integration and the International Protection Accommodation Service. “It cannot be left just to them, it has to be ramped up significantly”.
With a key Cabinet subcommittee meeting coming on Monday, Henderson says “very significant changes and ramping up must come from that”.
NGO workers fear the social and political consequences of being stretched too thin. “My entire adult life I’ve listened to fringe right wing voices saying there was not enough to go around, and they were always wrong. Until now,” says one in frustration. “For the first time ever, their argument could take a hold. They’ve been handed it.”