Ireland ‘very much’ at limit of how many refugees it can accommodate, Taoiseach says

Varadkar says overall intention is to bring State’s offering ‘more in line’ with other western European countries

There is “a limit” on the State’s capacity to accommodate and provide for refugees and international protection applicants and “we’re very much” at that currently, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Mr Varadkar said the Government did not know if it would be in a position to provide accommodation and supports for another 30,000 to 50,000 people “if that number arrived over the course of the next year”.

“Based on current numbers, it wouldn’t be far off that and we just don’t know if we’re able to provide that level of accommodation,” he told the Dáil on Wednesday.

The Taoiseach was speaking after Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman ran into opposition from Cabinet colleagues over plans which would limit State-provided accommodation for new arrivals from Ukraine to just 90 days.

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Mr Varadkar said there was now a lot of “secondary movements” to Ireland, whereby Ukrainians who have been living for months in other parts of western Europe then come here.

“It’s a long standing issue with international protection, people who have been living safely in other parts of western Europe for a period of time, then coming to Ireland and claiming asylum,” he said.

“Some of that is linked to the fact that we have a better offering in Ireland than would be the case in Northern Ireland or Britain or France or other countries that are not too far from us and that’s why we have to review the situation and we’re doing that at the moment.”

The Fine Gael leader said the overall intention was to bring the State’s offering “more in line with other western European countries” and that work was now underway.

“There’s no Government decision or agreement on it but that work is very much underway at the moment,” he said.

“But of course when we look at those things, we have to adjust for the fact that the cost of living is higher in Ireland, that we have a very serious housing shortage that we don’t want to make worse.

“It’s not that we’re just going to take the average of what’s done in other countries, we’re going to have to tailor it for the very real situation that we face here at the moment in this country.”

Earlier, Minister of State for integration Joe O’Brien said having large numbers of refugees in hotels is “not good for integration and cohesion” and “more sustainable” accommodation must be found.

He backed his Green Party colleague Mr O’Gorman and called for a medium- to long-term plan for refugees to be set out, while acknowledging there is a housing crisis and limited space available.

The Irish Times reported on Wednesday that Tánaiste Micheál Martin raised particular concerns about the time limit proposal, arguing that such an approach was tantamount to moving responsibility to the Department of Housing. The Fianna Fáil leader raised concerns about the impact on homelessness services, which were echoed by Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien.

“I wasn’t at Cabinet. So I don’t know what kind of exchanges were there,” Mr O’Brien said. “I think it’s important to remember that the temporary protection directive brings us into 2025 and there’s no sign of the conflict ending anytime soon. And we have to measure our response to fit that as well.

He added: “During the summer, we were very close to having no accommodation for large numbers of Ukrainians. Flows in have continued substantially as well.”

The Minister of State said officials had done “remarkably well” to “scurry around” and source accommodation for all those fleeing the war with Russia and arriving in Ireland.

”We can’t keep in that cycle. We have to find a more sustainable way in the medium term of managing it. How we do that, we don’t know yet, we have some ideas, and we’re trying to work through them to get agreement on them,” he said.

Asked where he believes refugees should go, given the State’s housing shortage, Mr O’Brien suggested the proposals would be more nuanced than removing accommodation at 90 days.

“It’s not a black and white proposal,” he added.

Earlier, a charity supporting Ukrainian refugees in Ireland described the proposed changes to how people fleeing here would be accommodated as “not humane, practical or sensible”.

Tom McEnaney, founder of Effective Aid Ukraine, told RTÉ radio’s Today show that it did not make sense to move people out of emergency accommodation after three months to find their own place “when we all know that there is no accommodation available”. He said such proposals would force Ukrainian refugees into homelessness at a time when those services were already “completely overburdened”.

Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan told the same programme that it must be recognised that the war in Ukraine is a long-term reality and the Department of Housing had been “effectively absent” on this issue for almost two years.

John Lannon, chief executive of the human rights organisation Dorás, told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that the Government appeared to be more focused on how to limit the number of people coming to Ireland rather than addressing the lack of available accommodation. He said standards had already been lowered to the extent that some people are now living in tents.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Vivienne Clarke

Vivienne Clarke is a reporter