Oughterard stand off was yet another symptom of the housing crisis
All problems associated with accommodating homeless people in hotels and B&Bs, apply to people seeking asylum
Some of the people taking part in a silent protest walk in Oughterard on September 28th against a direct provision centre at the former Connemara Gateway Hotel. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Communities and voluntary groups across Ireland have led in welcoming people seeking asylum for the last 20 years. In return, people have brought richness, vibrancy and skills to those communities. In our experience simple human interaction breaks down stereotypes and dissolves fears. There is no reason to believe Oughterard would have been any different in the long term. But what does the decision not to open a centre there mean?
The asylum system is under severe pressure. In September 2018, at least 20 people who claimed asylum at Dublin Airport were refused accommodation, a clear breach of the law. Newly arrived in the country, without any family, friends, or supports, they were left to spend the night on the streets. In hindsight this was a pivotal moment. With direct provision centres full, some over capacity, Ireland began using emergency accommodation for people seeking asylum. The number of people accommodated on an emergency basis grew from 140 in November 2018 to 1,300 by September of this year, including 275 children.
Emergency accommodation is the inevitable conclusion of a steady, and predictable, decline in capacity in direct provision since 2017. With the housing crisis making every available building a commodity in high demand, three centres closed in Dublin in the last 18 months: two flipped to homeless accommodation and one to be a luxury hotel. There is an open tender for asylum accommodation in Dublin. With the tender requiring a minimum capacity for 50 or more beds, prospects for it being fruitful seem low.
All the problems associated with accommodating homeless people in hotels and B&Bs, apply to people seeking asylum, and more. There are difficulties accessing medical care, the weekly allowance, basic sanitary items, and necessities for babies, including nappies. It pushes people into more and more remote locations in small towns where hotels are struggling to attract visitors, creating further isolation. Conditions fall far short of obligations under Irish and EU law.
The current crisis has exposed not only the cruelty of direct provision, but its weakness as a system of accommodation. Ireland needs to radically change its approach to the reception needs of people seeking asylum. However, if opposition to new centres mounts and Oughterard-style situations are replicated, people will continue to be housed in ad hoc emergency accommodation that is even more unsuitable than direct provision. As the situation becomes more untenable, the Government has hinted at even more basic types of accommodation or none at all. The Taoiseach said in the Dáil on Wednesday that the alternative to direct provision was camps and containers. The Department of Justice’s statement in response to the Oughterard contract falling through, was that Ireland was perilously close to not being able to provide accommodation to people. In the here and now, people must continue to provide a welcome to people, regardless of the type of accommodation they are in and how opposed to direct provision they may be.
Looking to the future, there is a clear way out of this crisis. direct provision must end and alternatives to direct provision are at our fingertips, if the political will exists. The report of the Dáil’s justice committee on direct provision, due this autumn, is an opportunity for a cross-party consensus on change. A huge amount has been spent on the system in the last 20 years. Expenditure has increased from €78 million in 2018 to at least €120 million in 2019. Nearly all of this to the market without any longer-term benefit. Investing future expenditure, via non-profit housing bodies, in smaller-scale own-door accommodation, within local communities would bring about real change. We have mapped out this future in various documents and meetings with housing bodies and the Department of Justice and will continue to do so.
Fundamentally, the solution requires, however unpalatable it may be in some quarters, that accommodating people seeking asylum becomes a housing issue. Not one side-lined and peripheral to the wider scrutiny Irish housing policy is under. We need housing solutions. A transition to a new model of accommodation should be one aspect of a long-term strategy to invest in housing for all people in need across the country.
Providing protection is never a numbers issue but, with the right processes and resources, the number of people seeking asylum in Ireland is more than manageable. Ireland received 3,655 asylum claims (including relocation) in 2018, representing 0.6 per cent of the total number of applications in the EU. The average number of claims per member state was 18,679. A total of 3,655 is 756 people per million of the Irish population. Or just 0.07 per cent of total population.
Nick Henderson is chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council