Over the past week, the Irish government has indicated that it no longer has space to accommodate any more Ukrainian refugees. But is this really a refugee crisis? Or is the real problem, as Memet Uludağ argues, the abject failure of this government to tackle the housing crisis?
Last week on Friday 21st October, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Roderic O’Gorman announced that he cannot rule out the possibility that refugees arriving in Ireland seeking accommodation may have to sleep on the streets.
This announcement had followed a series of ‘bad news’ on the housing front for Ukrainian refugees and the homeless in the Republic.
In April 2022, the Minister had admitted that the accommodation being offered to Ukrainian refugees arriving in Ireland is “not the gold standard”. He promised that Ukrainian refugees who have been placed in large, grouped accommodation centres would stay in them for no more than a number of weeks.
Today, all there is on offer for people fleeing the war in Ukraine are the streets of Ireland.
Back in August of this year, commenting on his high-profile government commitment to ending the Direct Provision System, O’Gorman said, “pledges to end direct provision by 2024 are now in doubt”. The Direct Provision System is where asylum seekers – similar to Ukrainian refugees – fleeing from troubles in other parts of the world are placed. At the time, O’Gorman’s main reason for this failure was the effort to house Ukrainian refugees.
Ending direct provision was not just a pledge. On the Green Party website, alongside the pictures of two TDs it says:
The Green Party has long campaigned against Direct Provision and ending this system was a key commitment secured by the Party in the Programme for Government.
Today, while the 22-year-old Direct Provision System is still growing, nobody, not even the Ukrainians who were presented as a ‘reason’ for not ending it, can get a safe place to stay.
It gets worse.
In July 2022, the government established a tent-camp at the army site in Co Meath. In September it was announced that the government would move Ukrainian refugees from army tents in Gormanston in time for winter. Mere weeks later, the news broke that the government is examining the use of tented accommodation to house Ukrainian refugees in the coming weeks, even though they are not designed to be used in winter.
The Irish Examiner reports that “there is a frustration that some departments are seeking to blame each other for what happened when 43 refugees were turned away due to a lack of beds. Senior sources have said the Taoiseach will seek to put an end to departmental “passing of the buck” and demand a much greater unified effort is brought to bear.”
Passing of the buck isn’t limited to government departments. On 21st October, speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme, Minister O’Gorman said, “That’s why we’re letting people know that if they have an option — if they’re in another EU member state — to either stay there or look to other EU member states, that we can’t guarantee State-provided accommodation into next week.”
Before the Cabinet sub-committee meeting on 24th October, the Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said, “the Irish system is clearly under strain and the Government has to be honest with those arriving here seeking safety and sanctuary that there is a shortage of suitable accommodation.”
Payments to families who house Ukrainian refugees are to be doubled to €800 under plans to be approved by the Government. While this may help to increase the numbers hosted in private homes, it is unlikely to be a sustainable solution.
Speaking on the matter, Micheál Martin said the country must ‘do more’, while warning that some far-right groups will use the situation to support their claims the country is ‘full’. He is right to say that “there is a fear that far-right groups are exploiting the Ukrainian refugee accommodation crisis”.
One key answer to this is to declare a housing emergency and make sure ordinary people don’t continue to suffer from the housing crisis. It is important to separate the far-right racism from the housing concerns of ordinary people.
250 Ukrainian refugees will be housed in Mahon, Co. Cork. Locals expressed their views by saying,
“I have no feelings against it. Everyone deserves a home.”
“The area is already too densely populated to take many more people in. There are different communities here.”
“I don’t think it’s good. A lot of people here are living with their own parents because they can’t get a house. It’s not fair. I have nothing against the Ukrainians, it’s the Government that are not managing it well.”
“A lot of people here are already waiting on the housing list”.
“There’s a desperate need for housing and Christmas is coming up. We have nothing against them [Ukrainian refugees] but we have a housing need here too”.
‘Too many people’ or ‘different communities’ or ‘densely populated’ are not the real issues here. Housing crisis and concerns of those in waiting list, are.
While the ministers re-iterate Ireland’s commitment to Ukrainian refugees, a two-tier refugee response is emerging. Tougher checks and more deportations are among the measures the government will approve ‘to better control the influx of migrants into Ireland.’ This is clearly aimed at non-Ukrainian refugees who may face a different side of the Irish Government. Furthermore, Ireland already has a strong immigration control in place.
Ireland Is Full: Full of Empty Houses
All these twists and turns, the blame game and the use of one set of refugees as an excuse not to house another is a clear sign that there is a deep crisis. The government has no real vision, policy or plans in place to provide the most vulnerable people with the basic human need of housing.
We have a situation where we see the mass eviction of tenants in an apartment block in Dublin, asylum seekers and refugees forced into homelessness upon arrival to this country and the number of homeless people continuing to increase.
We don’t have a refugee crisis but a deep housing crisis which neither Minister O’Gorman or the rest of the government are willing to admit and act on.
The former UK government wanted to mass-deport asylum seekers to prison-like camps in Rwanda. The Irish government is forcing them onto the streets at the beginning of the winter season.
Instead of declaring a housing emergency and taking necessary urgent actions, preventing evictions, and delivering sustainable public solutions, the government is playing with words and numbers.
Homelessness in this country long pre-dates the war in Ukraine and asylum seekers have been suffering in direct provision for 22 years. The government wants to use the war as an excuse for its own failures.
The Census shows 166,000 vacant properties in Ireland, with over 48,000 vacant for six years. While there are multiple reasons for these, vacant property levels have fallen only 9% since 2016. Including all types of properties, this number rises to more than 230,000.
The long running housing crisis is deepening by the day. Like the former Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael led governments, the current Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael and Green Party government has no political will to implement a public housing programme.
Minister O’Gorman outlined the total number of people now being accommodated in Ireland.
As of October 2022, there are 42,000 Ukrainian and 16,000 international protection applicants being accommodated in the Republic. He has used these figures to describe the challenges his government is facing in accommodating new arrivals. At the same time the homelessness number has risen to a new record high. 10,805 people are living in emergency homeless accommodation, including 1,274 children. More than 60,000 are on the housing list.
The minister has failed to explain some critical factors and details about these numbers.
Backlog in Direct Provision: Delays in the processing of asylum applications
There are 16,000 internal protection applicants (asylum seekers) because of the existing backlog in processing the applications. People are stuck in direct provision, sometimes for years. The number of new applicants has increased in 2022 but these are not at the level we had between 2000-2003.
For many years, the number of applicants dropped dramatically while during the same period the homelessness figures continued to grow reaching record numbers in 2022.
The following graph from the shows the number of applicants per year since 2000.
Graphic generated using Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC) | International Protection Office (IPO) data
Is Ireland overwhelmed by an influx of refugees?
The number of Ukrainian Refugees may seem high, but Ireland is nowhere near the top of the list of refugee hosting countries. Many, much poorer states host far more numbers of refugees than Ireland, not just in terms of absolute numbers but in comparisons based on per 100,000 population, GDP, and other factors.
The Real Issue: We have a Housing Crisis
About 32,000 Ukrainian refugees are being housed in hotels, B&Bs, and commercial self-catering accommodation, 900 people are in emergency accommodation and some 4,500 people are in private homes. 16,000 internal protection applicants are placed in direct provision centres, mostly in conditions not suitable for families and children. New arrivals are facing homelessness upon entering the state.
To accommodate the Ukrainian refugees, the Government has turned to the private sector, mostly using hotels as a solution. This follows the same logic as the long running direct provision system. According to a Newstalk report One-in-seven Irish hotels is now being used to house refugees and asylum seekers. This is a lucrative profit-making scheme for those who operate in the ‘institutionalised living’ and ‘asylum’ industry.
During his interview on Newstalk Taoiseach Michéal Martin presented ‘stark’ figures but he failed to mention the root-cause of the current crisis: The lack of housing for all in need. In fact, homeless Irish people would still be homeless even if there were no refugees.
He said, the numbers arriving in Ireland are “far higher” than was expected, noting that things are “very, very challenging”. But looking at the overall figures of Ukrainian refugees in Europe and elsewhere, Ireland is not leading the way to host huge numbers. Saying this is not about dismissing the efforts, especially the magnificent efforts of Irish people, to help the Ukrainian refugees.
To explain the picture by just the number of arrivals without any reference to the real issue causing the accommodation crisis, is misleading, to say the least.
List of Countries Hosting Ukrainian Refugees
Ukrainian and other refugees in direct provision are not taking away resources from the housing stock. The problem is the lack of housing.
The government has no sustainable plan, no political will and no real action to solve the housing crisis, that impacts the lives of Irish people and the refugees fleeing from wars. Short term, unsustainable plans only bring a very limited solution while millions are dished out to rent more private, direct provision style accommodation.
The callers to Newstalk complained that “We’re so small a country, we can’t take everybody in”, “We just haven’t got the housing. We haven’t got the facilities.” They are right in saying we haven’t got the housing but utterly wrong in thinking the answer is shutting our borders to refugees coming from war zones. They are also wrong to think that we don’t have resources and money to provide adequate housing. By saying this, they are letting the government off the hook and condemning refugees to war conditions. The issue is a government that is failing to provide housing to all in need. The history of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael led governments proves it… Before the Ukraine war, there was not enough public housing. When the number of asylum seekers was very low, there was still a growing housing crisis.
Putting Global Refugee Numbers into Context
Throughout the past 10 years many of the EU and European leaders have implemented racist and ultimately barbaric border policies to stop the people fleeing wars from entering Europe. We have seen the deaths of tens of thousands of refugees at the EU borders.
The EU states have engaged in a race to the bottom and washed their hands off any humanitarian and political responsibilities. They have presented a Europe that is overwhelmed by the ‘influx’ of refugees and fell victim to ‘illegal immigrants’ from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Their tears for Alan Kurdi, the refugee boy, lasted a very short time before they went back to more border barbarism.
Europe and Ireland have never been overwhelmed, invaded or fallen victim to ‘illegal immigrants’.
By the end of 2021 there were nearly 90 million forcibly displaced people (refugees) worldwide. These were as a result of persecution, conflicts, war, violence and human rights violations.
53.2 million are internally displaced people: People don’t simply cross borders to ‘invade’ other countries and suck their resources dry.
72% hosted in neighbouring countries: People, if they can escape to the nearest safe country, that’s where they go and stay. But in many cases, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, neighbouring countries are not safe, and the conflict is not confined to one country.
83% hosted in low- and middle-income countries: Low- and middle-income countries host 83 per cent of the world’s refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad. The least developed countries provide asylum to 27 per cent of the total. Rich EU States are not sharing the humanitarian and socio-economic support for refugees.
36.5 million are children: An estimated 36.5 million (41%) of the 89.3 million forcibly displaced people are children below 18 years of age.
1.5 million children were born as refugees: Many of whom living and growing in camps without a proper family home.
Simon Coveney is terribly wrong: The refugee response is NOT like a ‘war effort’
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has long been hoping to punch holes in Irish Neutrality. He continues to refer to the ongoing housing crisis in terms of “war”.
As reported by RTÉ, Mr. Coveney has compared the Government’s response to accommodating Ukrainian refugees and applicants for international protection to a “war effort”. He said, “This is a war effort effectively from Ireland, responding predominantly to support women and children coming from Ukraine, fleeing a war and horrific experiences and circumstances and that is putting our country and our systems under enormous pressure and this is really coming to a head now.”
He is wrong and misleading the people of Ireland. Wars and conflicts have caused millions of refugees worldwide. We still have millions displaced by the disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and other places.
Ireland is not a country at war!
The response to refugees must be the opposite of ‘war effort’. It must be one that challenges the imperialist war mongers on all sides.
At a time when homelessness has risen to record numbers, a government minister should be talking about humanitarian efforts with dignity and proper care. He should be talking about a massive effort to use funds for building homes for people, not aligning the refugee response to a “war effort”.
The Irish state is awash with money. Mr. Coveney should be recognising the urgent need for housing and invest his energy to solve the housing problem, not glorifying a failing refugee response by making references to war. Ireland is a neutral country and must reject investment into militarisation and the war effort. If Coveney is serious about the challenges of the refugee crisis and the humanitarian cost of wars, he must remember that wars create refugees. More wars and more bombs create even more refugees.
Solidarity with All Refugees. Fight for Public Housing for All
This rich state must invest in more housing, schools, GPs and local facilities for all people. Fantasising about a militarised Ireland will not provide for such basic human needs, not for Irish people, nor for refugees. In fact extra spending on defence will mean less funds for housing.
An emergency housing programme and a proper plan is what’s needed for Ireland.
Purpose build emergency accommodation for refugees, with a robust plan for permanent proper housing can eliminate both the growing housing and humanitarian crises. The plans to build 64 modular homes in Cork and Cavan need to be widened to accommodate all refugees in need. This would be a first step in the right direction.
A pandemic style housing response is needed without any further delay.
Demand HOMES FOR ALL in unity and Solidarity, not racist division
The racists and far-right groups continue to exploit the housing crisis and blame migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers for the deepening problem.
They use slogans such as “house the Irish first”, “Ireland is full” and “look after our own first”. In a recession when unemployment is high, they will focus on jobs. It will be “Irish jobs for Irish workers”. At present it is obviously housing. These slogans may sound ‘reasonable’ but they are in fact demands for extreme racist discrimination.
‘The problem’ (housing or jobs or lack of GP’s) is not caused by migrants or foreigners. These are caused by government policies and the economic system we live in.
There are enough empty houses in the State to house everybody. There is enough money and resources to build public housing. But the political rulers are not interested in the wellbeing of ordinary people. Instead, they continue to look after the interests of landlords. As I am writing these lines, 35 families, Irish and migrants, are served eviction notice by their Irish landlord.
There is a problem with adequate housing but it’s not because of too much demand caused by immigration. The problem is not too many people – foreign born or Irish, black or white. We have a population in the Republic of only 4.9 million. That’s 3 million less than what it was before the Famine.
The government are not building enough public housing on public land – like they did in the 40’s through to the 80’s.
House prices and rents are not ‘affordable’ – they’re ridiculous! These are hiked by the profiteering landlords.
Who are our own? Those claiming to worry about the ‘Irish People’ don’t mean ordinary working people, whatever their colour, or where they’re from. They mean only Irish born and ‘white’. This ignores the fact that the main ones responsible for the housing crisis are ‘our own’ – successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments and Housing Ministers, a third of whom are landlords themselves.
The Government is failing the homeless, refugees fleeing wars, everyone on housing lists or those stuck in rental ‘market’. The most vulnerable are abandoned by this government.
The answer is to unite and fight for housing for all.
The Government claims to look after homeless people and refugees. But homeless support and refugee humanitarianism is not just a PR exercise using the right words. It is about sustainable plans, services, infrastructure, most fundamentally providing housing. Housing that doesn’t put homeless people and refugees in competition. Services that don’t solely rely on charity but sustainable policies and real action. It is about building public homes for all in need.
What we see today, is at the core a housing crisis, not a refugee crisis!
I am an activist in United Against Racism. We are part of the Cost of Living Coalition and Housing Campaign, linking the fight for economic and housing rights with our struggle against racism and the hateful far-right.
Together we can build an Ireland where no child is left homeless and no refugee abandoned at the borders or on Irish streets.
Join us in this fight.