Ireland faces returning to debates of the 2000s as asylum system struggles

Increase in number of people seeking protection reignites old debates about Ireland’s ‘pull factor’ for migrants

During separate interviews over the last week, two senior politicians said the State is preparing to receive as many refugees this year as it did last year.

Both Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Integration Joe O’Brien said separately that the same amount of refugees who fled to Ireland from the war in Ukraine last year – about 70,000 – are expected this year. The comments went somewhat under the radar, but behind the scenes in Government there is an acute awareness, and indeed growing alarm, about how new arrivals will be accommodated.

When asked if the State was prepared for such an eventuality, and if there was enough accommodation coming on-stream, a senior Government source indicated that no promises can be made. This is, they say, an exceptionally challenging situation.

The State is now facing the prospect of temporarily closing the Citywest refugee processing facility to new entrants this spring just as many hotels pull back from their existing contracts to accommodate refugees.


Compounding the situation is the fact that there will also be a significant shortfall in available accommodation for international protection applicants, separate to those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

A number of modelling scenarios have been presented to Government, one of which was completed in the middle of December. That forecast said there could be an extra 19,450 refugees arriving by the end of March, which would be the equivalent of about 1,220 a week. Based upon these figures, it is very easy to see how the same number of refugees could arrive this year as last.

By March, there could be a shortfall of about 8,000 beds. This would mean that Ireland would fail to meet its international obligations, which could prompt criticism from Europe.

This is despite plans to have 2,000 modular units ready by Spring, along with another 3,213 new spaces in refurbished accommodation.

It is proving very difficult for Government to plan ahead due to the significant fluctuations in the numbers arriving, anywhere from 50-a-day to 200-a-day.

Every morning, officials in the Department of Children meet and discuss the day’s arrivals. The tone from those working in the department is increasingly desperate. The key to solving the problems in the months ahead, they say, lies with using unoccupied homes and modular developments.

But there are many obstacles to overcome in delivering accommodation by Spring. Repurposing older buildings for residential use and making them compliant with fire safety regulations is a time-consuming process. There are also shortages of skilled construction workers and a lack of suitable sites in larger urban areas for rapid-build units.

There is an important political backdrop to this as well. It has been two decades since the politics of international protection commanded so much national attention and emotional debate in Ireland.

When the number of people arriving into Ireland seeking asylum reached a high watermark of 12,000 in 2003, the Government responded by holding a citizenship referendum, and later, by introducing the direct provision system.

The buzz phrase back then was “pull factor”. The Fianna Fáil government argued that Ireland was a softer touch than other EU States. The harder policies worked, numerically at least. The number of people arriving into Ireland fell dramatically in subsequent years. Until 2022. Once Russia invaded Ukraine, the dynamic changed, with almost 70,000 arriving by the end of last year.

What the Government did not foresee was an accompanying – and dramatic – surge in the number of people from other countries seeking international protection. In 2021 there were 2,649 applications for international protection in Ireland. Last year, there were 13,319 – a five-fold increase and a historic high.

The significant upsurge in applications has turned accommodating refugees into a political issue, not least because of the difficulties the State has encountered in accommodating 52,000 Ukrainian refugees (almost 20,000 stay with relatives) in addition to almost new 20,000 asylum seekers.

There are two aspects to the politics of inward migration. One revolves around the practical headaches and financial implications. The other cannot be fully decoupled from the first but is less easy to answer. It relates to public sentiment and if the change has led to a hardening of attitudes towards asylum seekers (and, indeed, towards Ukrainian refugees).

In 2019, Catherine Day, the former EU Commission secretary general chaired a Commission that recommended the ending of direct provision. A Government White Paper last year committed to implementing that recommendation by 2024, replacing it with “own door” accommodation for refugees.

At the time, there were fewer than 7,000 people in direct provision. As of last week, there were 19,300 international protection applicants in Ireland, either living in direct provision or in emergency accommodation. When you add the 52,000 Ukrainian people who were accommodated here last year, the logistical scale of the problem is stark.

The Department has said it is developing a revised implementation plan for ending direct provision in the light of higher numbers. Realistically, own-door accommodation for asylum seekers is not going to happen for many years unless there is a collapse in numbers.

Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman is under enormous pressure and the situation is only exacerbated by the housing crisis. Of the19,300 in the international protection category, 5,000 have been granted asylum status already but have remained in direct provision because they cannot get accommodation elsewhere.

When 80 people seeking asylum were moved out of tented accommodation in Meelick, Co Clare before Christmas, O’Gorman said that there would be no more tents. It was a “read my lips” moment. With considerable numbers arriving over Christmas, the authorities had no choice but to use tented accommodation again in the new year.

With so many Government Departments, State agencies and non-Government agencies involved, it is difficult to estimate the cost to the State of dealing with the refugee crisis. It is certainly in the billions of euro already.

For the international protection category alone, the costs will be over half a billion euro for 2022.

In 2021, the direct provision budget was €225 million, essentially to run the direct provision centres.

With a 500 per cent increase in those seeking protection, the Government has had to make exceptional provision this year. A response to a parliamentary question from Fianna Fáil TD Joe Flaherty showed the escalating cost to the State of providing emergency accommodation in hotels, pubs, and bed and breakfasts. The monthly cost rose from €22 million in May to €36 million in October. The overall cost for that six-month period was €166 million, or over €300 million if extrapolated to a full year. That is in addition to the budget of €225 million.

Meanwhile the locations chosen for the modular homes has also resulted in political tensions.

At some sites, it has already turned nasty. Fringe groups with an anti-immigrant, right-wing agenda have turned up at protests in an effort to foment xenophobia and exploit the situation for their own political agendas. Some have succeeded in spreading misinformation, such as that they are “all single men” and that there is a large criminal or troublemaking element among the new arrivals.

These protests have grabbed most of the headlines. But it would be simplistic to regard the issue only in terms of the actions of a far-right element.

When Sinn Féin TD for Kerry Pa Daly criticised protests outside accommodation centres in Killarney and misinformation being spread, he was accused online of being out of step with the public on the issue. Mr Daly told the Kerryman that he understood the fears of local people (especially given a violent incident that occurred in an accommodation centre in the town) but that protesting outside the centre was the “wrong place to protest”.

If Daly is out of step, it is only with some people. In some areas, including East Wall and Drimnagh in Dublin, well-attended counter rallies have been held to put out the message that refugees and asylum seekers are welcome in their community.

But even in the mainstream of politics – the Oireachtas – the substantial increase in numbers seeking International protection has reignited the immigration debate of the early 2000s.