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Sunday 18 February 2018

'Refugees will be welcome in Roscommon - but why are we only just being told about this?'

A Syrian child looks on, moments after arriving on a raft with other Syrian refugees on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos Picture: Reuters
A Syrian child looks on, moments after arriving on a raft with other Syrian refugees on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos Picture: Reuters
Shannon Valley, a partial ghost estate near the hotel Photo: Douglas O’Connor
The Abbeyfield Hotel on the Sligo Road Photo: Douglas O’Connor

Robin Schiller

As rain pelted down on one of the unfinished estates that dot the Roscommon landscape, a small rural community was hot with debate.

The majority of Ballaghaderreen's population only became aware of the planned intake of refugees following media reports.

That alone has aggrieved many of the 2,000 people living here. And this, they say, is the predominant issue.

The decision to locate the 80 refugees, the majority of whom are Syrian, in the disused Abbeyfield Hotel for the next two years was being discussed at a special meeting of Roscommon County Council. Just a day earlier, the councillors had learned of the Department of Justice's plans.

It is expected that the first refugees will begin arriving at the 40-bedroom hotel within a matter of weeks.

All the refugees will arrive in Ireland from camps in Greece and comprise family groups including a substantial number of children.

However, all will be subjected to security screening by gardaí and will be finger-printed.

Rosaleen Coleman (54) said that despite living in close proximity to the planned emergency accommodation, she was not informed of plans to locate at least 80 refugees there.

"We live across from the hotel and we only found out on Friday morning when it was in the news. We weren't told what was happening."

The hotel itself, a modern marbled building which lies on a large site along the Sligo Road, has not been in use for four years, according to locals. Before that it was the "pride" of the community, a sign of more prosperous times for the area. Its facilities include a leisure centre and a swimming pool.

Many hoped that work being carried out at the Abbeyfield in recent months signalled that the hotel would reopen.

"We weren't told what was happening. Work has been going on for some time at the hotel, and they could have told us what their plans were. We hoped that the hotel was opening back up, because it would have brought great business back to the town," Ms Coleman added.

Locals say other potential sites could have been used for emergency accommodation - including the option of developing ghost estates.

The choice of a hotel to house asylum seekers will bring back grim memories of the episode at Vee Valley Hotel in Clogheen, Co Tipperary.

There were two suspected arson attacks in the space of weeks, after the hotel was earmarked for accommodating 30 or more asylum seekers in 2000.

Nearly 20 years later, the world is greatly changed. Ballaghaderreen itself pledges a welcome for the Syrians - even if the locals are furious at the lack of communication so far.

Leo Boland (75), a long-time resident of Ballaghaderreen, said he expected more refugees to be taken in at the Abbeyfield Hotel than was being officially stated.

"Whatever number they say are coming in, you can treble that," he predicted. "The main problem is people weren't even told what was happening."

But he added: "If they arrive and stay quiet, then I don't see why the people of Ballaghaderreen should have a problem with them."

It is already a multi-cultural town, with a diverse range of foreign stores and restaurants. One Pakistani man living near the Abbeyfield, arrived six months ago.

"I have no problem that people looking for refugee status are going to live here. It's a quiet place, with no problems," he said.

The Irish Refugee and Reception Agency officials John Roycroft and Eugene Banks have now briefed councillors and said that Ballaghaderreen was the most suitable centre identified from 90 properties proposed nationwide.

Ballaghaderreen was chosen from a number of Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres (EROCs) established around Ireland by the Department of Justice in the wake of the Mediterranean refugee crisis.

Ireland expects to accept more than 4,000 refugees by late 2018.

The Ballaghaderreen relocation emerged when Roscommon County Council chief executive Eugene Cummins was informed a local hotel had been contracted as an accommodation centre.

But those frustrated at the lack of communication included Fine Gael Senator Maura Hopkins, who is originally from Ballaghaderreen.

"We have a situation where we've only been informed that 80 refugees are coming through Greece from Syria in about 15 days time," she said.

In response, the Department of Justice said that the accommodation would house refugees for a period of roughly 12 weeks before rehousing them elsewhere in Ireland.

Irish Independent

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