One year on: Ballaghaderreen and refugees ‘let down’ by State

Lack of resources, pressures on healthcare and rising joblessness ‘does not bode well’

Councillor Michael Mulligan and former councillor, Michael Scully, have sympathy for Syrian refugees arriving in Ballaghaderreen, but ask if the town has the infrastructure to cope. Video: Keith Heneghan

 

It has been just over a year since the first group of Syrian refugees arrived at the Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre (EROC) in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon.

A total of 334 refugees, including 141 children, have passed through the centre since March 2017, according to figures from the Department of Justice. At the moment 215 people are living there.

Both the town and the refugees have been in the headlines and on our television screens from the start; from BBC-TV3 and RTÉ documentaries to newspaper articles on soccer games, violin-making and lack of healthcare funding.

The country was moved by Prime Time footage of shopkeeper Mary Gallagher, who asked: “When you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say no?”

Mary Gallagher: ‘When you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say no?’
Mary Gallagher: ‘When you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say no?’

Local volunteers have worked tirelessly to welcome these people who have witnessed the worst kinds of violence and persecution, and the people of the town have been nominated for a Community of the Year award at Sunday night’s People of the Year awards in Dublin.

But, a year on, how has the scheme to settle refugees worked, for both the refugees and the locals?

It seems that although the refugees were given a warm welcome and have been described by interviewees for this article as “respectful,” “lovely” and “sound,” the implementation of resources has been haphazard, with the burden of care landed on a community already under strain in relation to job cuts and healthcare.

“It does not bode well for similar projects countrywide in that a lot of the problems addressed at the time – a lack of consultation and services not being put in place – were very slow to be rectified,” said Micheál Frain, head of the Ballaghaderreen Town Team and chairman of Roscommon Leader Partnership.

Cllr Michael Mulligan: “They [the refugees] have been let down by the Government, and the people of Ballaghaderreen have been let down by the Government.” Photograph: Mick McCormack
Cllr Michael Mulligan: “They [the refugees] have been let down by the Government, and the people of Ballaghaderreen have been let down by the Government.” Photograph: Mick McCormack

The feeling is echoed by Sinn Féin councillor Michael Mulligan: “They [the refugees] have been let down by the Government, and the people of Ballaghaderreen have been let down by the Government. We didn’t get the doctors or the teachers that we were supposed to get . . . The things that were promised to be put in place for them were not put in place,” said Mulligan, who also owns a hardware shop in the town.

Doctors’ waiting lists

Medical services are under particular strain, with just two doctors tending to an ageing population and a group of refugees with complex needs.

One of those GP surgeries – Willowbrook Medical Centre – is now operating with at least a two-day waiting list. Some people in the town have reported waiting up to three weeks for non-emergency appointments.

“We used to provide a same-day service up until quite recently but at the moment there’s at least a two- or three-day waiting time, which is kind of unheard of,” said Dr Martin Garvey.

“There are discussions at the moment about a new GP contract [for the town] but it has been going on now for quite a long period of time. There hasn’t been any white smoke.”

However, he believes these pressures would have arisen in the town regardless of the refugees’ arrival.

“Rural general practice has become extremely difficult to get GPs into. It’s not an attractive prospect at this time.”

Emergency pay cuts introduced in the public sector during the financial crisis have resulted in increased pressure on general practices and a difficulty in recruiting young doctors into the sector to replace those retiring, he said.

Micheál Frain: “The HSE and Department of Health always were slow to come to the table, and that hasn’t improved.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Micheál Frain: “The HSE and Department of Health always were slow to come to the table, and that hasn’t improved.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Frain said it was time the Health Service Executive and Department of Health engaged with the people of the town.

“Out of all the services and departments in this process, you’d have to say the HSE and Department of Health always were slow to come to the table, and that hasn’t improved.

“It was flagged and it was highlighted at the time and now a year on it doesn’t seem to have been addressed, so that is an issue. That is a worrying issue going forward.”

Additional resources

Local Fine Gael senator Maura Hopkins agrees. She says that while a contract was signed to set up the EROC centre in January 2017, that “seems to be all that was done”.

“No extra resources had initially been allocated particularly in terms of health and education. The provision of extra resources has improved but it has been very ad hoc and difficult.”

She said that although dormant account funding of €97,000 was used to fund a mobile health screening unit and HSE officials are working on site to co-ordinate healthcare, more needed to be done.

“I strongly believe lessons need to be learned in terms of ensuring that proper resources are put in place to support refugees and local communities.”

It took three months to get teachers and classrooms up and running for the children in the centre, and only now has planning permission for a childcare centre been lodged, she said.

There has also been difficulty in securing housing for the residents, who were not intended to stay in the EROC centre permanently.

“These people came to our shores in search of hope and a new, better, safer future . . . but their lives are currently on hold as they still await housing.

“There are significant challenges in terms of provision of housing in certain areas across the country.”

Just 119 of the 334 residents have moved to more permanent housing.

Investment

Local employment is another huge issue in Ballaghaderreen. The ECMI cigar factory closed down last May, with the loss of 38 jobs.

Frain said there had been no engagement from Enterprise Ireland or the IDA to try to draw industry into the town: “Ballaghaderreen has stepped up the plate on this matter, but have the agencies who are meant to be there to support us actually done anything for us? The answer is quite simply no.

“The one thing that’s coming out loud and clear is that they [the refugees] all want to work and there is nothing here. There’s nothing here for our own,” said Mulligan.

The first group of Syrian refugees arrived in Ballaghaderreen more than a year ago but the burden of care has fallen on a community already under strain in relation to job cuts and healthcare. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The first group of Syrian refugees arrived in Ballaghaderreen more than a year ago but the burden of care has fallen on a community already under strain in relation to job cuts and healthcare. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

There are, however, plenty of positives to be taken from the experience.

The on-site swimming pool, which locals mourned the closure of when the Abbeyfield Hotel shut down in 2010, was reopened under the ownership of local gym Health Quarters.

The Aurivo dairy plant, which employs up to 70 people at peak times, has sought planning permission for an expansion of its services.

Local volunteers have been singled out for their immense contribution to the integration and wellbeing of the refugees.

Many of the children have thrived through their engagement with the community games and local sports teams.

“The town, with a bit of help and support, could be a great town. But we need investment in services. We’re doing our bit, but we need leadership from agencies,” said Frain.

And so it seems that while a lot has been done by the people of Ballaghaderreen, there is more to be done by the State.

One Year On is an Irish Times series which revisits some of the biggest stories from last year to see what has happened since. Are there any stories you would like to see an update on? Email ntowey@irishtimes.com

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