Take a closer look at the following phrases: “Tsunami of homelessness”; “Migration crisis”; “Worst homeless crisis in years”; “Charities working around the clock”; and “Urgent action needed”. We’re hearing them increasingly, but these are not commonplace expressions to be glossed over, for they signal something appalling happening in our midst.
This week, we learned how adult refugees arriving in Ireland are being told to sleep on the streets because there is no shelter available. Off you go, spend the night wandering a strange city in winter and keep an eye out for a shop doorway to bunk down in when your feet get sore.
Doesn’t the State have a duty of care to international protection applicants? Their safety must surely be compromised. But arrival numbers are rising and beds are in short supply, reserved for people with children. While it is right to prioritise according to vulnerability, effectively we are punishing the needy with this non-solution.
A reset is needed. Whether they are fleeing war or persecution, or are economic migrants striking out in search of a better life, we must be better prepared to receive them.
Instead, some of the new arrivals are being handed €20 Dunnes Stores vouchers, directed to the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin and told they’ll be emailed if a bed becomes avail-able. That reference to email contact is particularly striking – a reminder of the 21st-century way of doing business, even as people are consigned to Dickensian sleeping arrangements. It represents an abysmal failure of planning because the current influx is part of an identified pattern.
What’s bringing increased numbers to our shores? Primarily, Russia’s war on Ukraine. To date, more than 70,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Ireland, and this is putting strains not just on accommodation but on social and health services.
It became abundantly clear early on that the war wouldn’t end soon, and those fleeing Russian aggression would continue to seek refuge in other countries. Who can blame them? But tensions have flared at reception areas because people see a divergence in how different nationalities are treated: Ukrainians are categorised differently, with temporary protection under EU law, which supersedes national law.
In addition to Ukrainian women and children (men must stay and fight), an average of 310 international protection applicants are arriving every week. Economic and Social Research Institute ( ESRI) figures last year showed two-thirds were men. The Citywest transit hub is under pressure and has had to close to newcomers, with the overflow being pushed on to homeless and charitable organisations.
The Capuchin centre is bracing for an increase in numbers over the coming weeks. It provides food, medical care and hot showers.
“We just don’t know what numbers are going to come in,” centre manager Alan Bailey told RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland on Wednesday. “We sat down with staff at 6am this morning and worked out the logistics of a big influx today; we feel we are ready.”
Instead of offering the usual sit-down hot breakfast, a takeaway service and food hampers were substituted. The centre usually feeds 200 rough sleepers, opening its doors at 8am to people who have walked around all night, but it is opening an hour earlier to take them off the streets. Between 500 and 600 hot meals are provided at midday.
“We’re seeing a lot of new people, people who have never been here before,” Mr Bailey said. “They were grateful.”
But it’s we who should be grateful that someone is plugging a hole in the system due to the State’s shortfall.
Leo Varadkar characterises the situation as the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, and the largest ever experienced in Ireland. The country cannot guarantee accommodation for everyone “who comes to the country unannounced”, the Taoiseach told the Dáil. Ireland has to prioritise, and primacy goes to people from Ukraine.
But the State must do better. Homelessness is not something many Irish people can comfortably shrug off. At some level, we associate it with famine and evictions, an unhappy element of our history. People have a right to attempt to make a better life for themselves – our ancestors tried to do the same. We can empathise with victims of war and hunger, because as a nation we’ve experienced these.
More worrying than those tensions erupting inside reception centres are the demonstrations outside, which gardaí say are being stoked by far-right elements. Fears are being inflated, negative attitudes towards migrants stoked. One way of addressing concerns is by consulting community leaders and keeping lines of communication open. An improved job needs to be done at presenting the advantages – not least labour shortages filled and an influx of new blood in small towns.
Historically, Ireland has had low levels of migration compared with other EU countries, so in some ways we’re playing catch-up. Proportionally, compared with the UK and EU, Ireland is seeing greater numbers arrive here, according to a timely ESRI report last November, Explaining Recent Trends in International Protection Applications in Ireland.
It says applicants are arriving from Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt and Georgia, among other countries, and cites a number of factors including catch-up migration following the pandemic. Some arrivals are deflections from the UK, which is operating a hostile policy, although Britain is still seeing small boat arrivals – a type of migration not experienced in Ireland.
More solutions are needed, such as refurbishing empty buildings, including office blocks. Labour leader Ivana Bacik suggested Jury’s hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin, and nearby Baggot Street hospital could be used. The former Convent of Mercy in Kilcormac, Co Offaly, will house Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, the Commission on Housing is expected to recommend a referendum on housing be held later this year. If passed, it would allow derelict land and vacant property to be used.
However, steps to deal with vacant properties ought to have been taken long before now.
Where anyone is born is not just a postcode lottery, it is a geographical one. We’re the lucky ones on this small island, and we need to beware creeping normalisation of this instruction for someone to take their chances sleeping rough and get round to the Capuchins for a bite of breakfast.