The State faces a complex and multi-layered challenge in dealing with the tens of thousands of refugees, both from Ukraine and elsewhere, who have arrived in Ireland in the past 12 months. That challenge is only going to intensify in the coming months as thousands more arrive. The response needs to move up a few gears.
The most immediate and pressing problem is one of simple accommodation capacity. The numbers of Ukrainians who have come here seeking refuge from a terrible war not of their making now exceeds 70,000. With pessimistic predictions for an intensification of the conflict, that number can be expected to rise significantly.
People applying for international protection, or asylum, here will also continue to arrive in large numbers; the total increased more than fourfold last year. While some of the increase reflected the ending of Covid restrictions, last year’s arrivals were at a 20-year high. It is Ireland’s legal obligation under international treaties to process and assess their claims for international protection here; if granted, they are permitted to stay.
The squeeze on accommodation will become acute in the coming months not just because further arrivals are inevitable, but because some of the hotels which currently house almost 50,000 Ukrainians will want their rooms back for the summer tourist season. The Government’s planned response has three elements – rapid-build, modular accommodation on State land, conversion of existing buildings to cater for residential use and a renewed push for holiday homes or other unused dwellings to be made available.
There is a short window in the coming months to quickly scale up each of these projects which could avoid a desperate shortage of accommodation – and the inevitable use of tents – in the late spring/early summer period. But that will require an immediate intensification of activity that is not currently apparent. The slow pace of project delivery that is often a feature of public administration cannot be repeated in the Government’s response to the current crisis. The Government needs, in other words, to get a move on. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said this week that the State will not be able to provide accommodation for everyone who arrives. But, really, we will have to do better than that.
The past week has also seen protests at asylum facilities proliferating in a small number of locations. While it is important not to overstate the popularity and extent of these, there are real fears about capacity and public services in some places that the authorities must address.
There is no doubt that Government and its agencies are facing an unprecedented challenge. But with political will and administrative energy, these should not be insurmountable problems. A concentrated effort on all fronts is required.