Sunday 22 April 2018

Rural politicians reveal split on refugee shelter sites

Unease is mounting in areas tipped to house the incoming 4,000 refugees as part of Ireland's response to the European crisis
Unease is mounting in areas tipped to house the incoming 4,000 refugees as part of Ireland's response to the European crisis

Claire McCormack

Sharp divisions have emerged among rural politicians over plans to house thousands of refugees in vacant army barracks.

A straw poll of representatives from the main parties and Independents shows significant disquiet about a potential influx of refugees into provincial towns.

It suggests that the outpouring of sympathy for those fleeing Syria, Eritrea and other war zones that soared after the publication at the beginning of this month of shocking images of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, drowned on a beach in Kos, has been tempered by concern over the potential impact of housing refugees in vacant army barracks in Kildare, Tipperary and Westmeath

Although the Government, the Office of Public Works and other State agencies have not yet named suitable buildings to be used as "Emergency Reception and Orientation centres", officials say they are "actively examining all options available".

A Department of Justice spokesperson said "no property has been specifically included or excluded at this stage".

Last week, Minister of State at the Department of Justice Aodhan O Riordain said it would make sense if the orientation centres and longer-term accommodation were outside Dublin, due to the severe housing and homelessness crises.

However, unease is mounting in areas tipped to house the incoming 4,000 refugees as part of Ireland's response to the European crisis.

Concerns include properties being run-down and in serious need of repair, huge renovation costs, anti-social behaviour, impact on housing waiting lists and fears that new facilities will replicate "failures" of the direct provision system.

Longford-Westmeath Fine Gael TD Gabrielle McFadden said she would not support the idea of using Columb Barracks in Mullingar.

"I would be concerned the use of such buildings in this respect could ghettoise these people who've been innocent and tragic victims of a terrible war in Syria," she said.

"While we all must work towards addressing the refugee crisis, we need to learn from the sharp lessons of direct provision centres in this country such as Athlone."

An estimated 20 families have been living in mobile homes at the neighbouring direct provision centre for up to 10 years while waiting for the Government to adjudicate applications to stay.

John Shaw, a Fianna Fail councillor in Mullingar, said: "I haven't seen anything from the Government to suggest forward thinking as to what these people are going to do if dumped in places like Mullingar.

"They will receive €20 per week and won't be allowed to work. This will cause in- evitable tension and preju- dice between the refugees and the wider community."

Others argue that "a refugee family per parish" approach would bring greater employment and educational opportunities to rural areas.

Kildare representatives have serious reservations over using the former Magee Barracks in Kildare town.

Independent councillor Seamie Moore said: "The buildings are in atrociously bad condition.

"The lead has been stolen from roof structures and almost all windows and doors are broken-in."

Sinn Fein councillor Mark Lynch said: "The site has long-running anti-social behaviour issues and would be made worse by some shanty town built on the cheap to house refugees for a indefinite amount of time."

Fiona McLoughlin Healy, a Fine Gael candidate for South Kildare, said the "closed" nature of a barracks would hamper integration.

"The psychological effects of war will only start when they arrive. We need to look at alternatives," she said.

Labour councillor Anne Breen believes the premises could provide "safe and suitable accommodation for a short period".

In Tipperary, Independent TD Mattie McGrath would support the use of the former Kickham Barracks in Clonmel, but urged strict entry precautions.

"There's a real fear that amid the mass of genu- ine refugees there's an element whose agenda is not consistent with democratic values. Ireland must not be blind to this very real threat," he said.

However, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Tom Hayes said the former barracks is not suitable as it has been acquired by Tipperary County Council.

Sunday Independent

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