Kitty Holland: Efforts to house refugees may help homeless Irish families too

The predictable chorus that we ‘must look after our own first’ is depressing

Refugees aboard the  Irish Naval vessel LE Niamh en route to Palermo, Sicily after they were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea when their boat capsized. Photograph:  Irish Defence Forces/PA

Refugees aboard the Irish Naval vessel LE Niamh en route to Palermo, Sicily after they were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea when their boat capsized. Photograph: Irish Defence Forces/PA

 

As with too many human rights issues, it took one profoundly powerful image of another human’s suffering to so traumatise our collective conscience that we could no longer look away.

After months of distressing images of people being rescued at sea, of adults’ bodies washed up on beaches, of bodies in the backs of trucks, it was the image of a dead toddler, lying alone, washed up like a piece of discarded rubbish on a Turkish beach, that galvanised an appropriate response.

Our instinct to protect the vulnerable has been so offended by the circumstances of Aylan Kurdi’s death that we have been moved in our thousands to see the humanity at the heart of this extraordinary crisis and to recognise that it demands an extraordinary response.

Communities across the State have responded with now 15,000 pledges of beds in their homes for refugees. Clothes and toiletries will be sent to refugee “hotspots” across Europe. Fundraisers are being held in pubs and homes. Government Ministers were almost competing to set higher limits on how many refugees Ireland could take.

Some say policy should not be formulated in reaction to emotion, but as is so often the case, good policy is only finally forced by an instinctive, essentially emotional, reaction to a wrong.

It took the drowning of 700 refugees in the Mediterranean, in April, for the EU to review its policy not to provide rescue patrols. The Department of Defence sent first the LÉ Eithne and then the LE Niamh to those waters, with the LÉ Beckett due to take over at the end of the month. So far, they have rescued 6,720 people. This is good policy, and it has been sustained.

How depressing, therefore, is the predictable chorus that we “must look after our own first”. Threads on social media all week have been filled with people saying the Government must sort “our own” housing crisis first.

Although this discourse may be understandable – given that we have 1,400 homeless children across the State, more than 3,000 adults homeless in Dublin alone, and, according to figures obtained by Fianna Fáil this week, 130,000 households on the housing waiting list – it should be named as racist.

It injects a “them or us” element into the discourse, “othering” our fellow people and allowing us to be complicit in the abuses being perpetrated by the Assad regime, by Islamic State, by people smugglers and by the incoherence of the EU’s asylum policy.

There is, however, a genuine concern about the arrival of thousands more people in the arena competing for already scarce housing resources.

But let’s look at the numbers.

The figure of 4,000 is the equivalent of the population of Cashel, Co Tipperary, or of Macroom, Co Cork.

If every Catholic parish took in a family of four, as urged by Pope Francis earlier this week, that would be more than 4,000 people (1,000 households). To suggest, as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, this is all we can do, betrays a shameful lack of national confidence.

What is more, many of those arriving will be well-educated. Having shown such ferocious determination to get their families to safety, they will want to work, to build new lives. Many will not need State subsidies once established here. Others will want to go home eventually.

One respected homelessness campaigner suggested to me during the week that the arrival of thousands of refugees could breathe new energy into the Government’s efforts to address the housing crisis, as they rise to the challenge of meeting new demands for shelter.

“They can’t be seen to accommodate a whole new group of people and not sort out the homelessness crisis,” he said.

The housing managers of all local authorities meet on Tuesday. They will discuss how they can respond to the refugee crisis. The Government says it will identify every possible vacant, State-owned or private building that could be used to accommodate 4,000 new residents. The strategy sounds familiar.

In a memo to Cabinet in May last year, then housing minister Jan O’Sullivan described the escalating numbers of homeless families as an “emergency crisis”. Former Garda stations, care homes and centres formerly used to accommodate asylum seekers could be used to house homeless families, she said.

Sixteen months on, the number of homeless children in Dublin has more than doubled. Both the media and politicians seem to have become somewhat inured to tje devastation being wreaked on families by homelessness.

Announcing on Thursday the figure of 4,000 refugees and migrants that the State will accept, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, said: “It is only right that we do all we can as a nation to help.”

The message is welcome, but the numbers referred to are tiny. Clearly we could and should take more people. But the urgency with which this issue is being treated is welcome. It could help homeless Irish families too.

People, whether in an Irish family or a family which has travelled across continents to get here, have the same need for a safe home. None of them are served by a lack of ambition, or the racism of the “them or us” approach.

Breda O’Brien is on leave

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