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File photo of empty office space Alamy Stock Photo

The Government unveiled two big plans around asylum seekers today - here's what they are

It involves empty office spaces and a new EU Pact.


THE GOVERNMENT HAS agreed a new housing strategy for asylum seekers that focuses on “moving away from reliance on private providers”.

Empty office buildings will be converted as part of the plans to address the crisis in accommodation for international protection applicants.

The government will make ‘targeted purchases’ of medium and larger turnkey properties, and will repurpose State land for the construction of prefabricated buildings and modular units.

Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman today announced the plan, which also includes longer term reforms of the system, including the use of office space left empty since the pandemic.

The strategy aims to reform Ireland’s system of housing International Protection (IP) applicants while addressing the ongoing shortfall of available accommodation.

It is one of two significant proposals that have come before Cabinet today, with Justice Minister Helen McEntee earlier gaining Cabinet approval for Ireland to join an EU agreement managing asylum applicants known as the Pact on Migration and Asylum.

EU Pact

The EU’s Asylum and Migration Pact allows some member states the option of paying a monetary contribution to the bloc rather than accepting migrants.

Under the pact, Ireland will have permission to return IP applicants who have moved here back to another EU member state to have their claim processed if they have travelled here from that country.

By opting in, the Irish Government will commit to introducing a programme of legislation that will replace the current International Protection Act by 2026.

McEntee today said that while “no country in the EU wants to deny refuge to those who are fleeing persecution, neither do we want our asylum process to be used as a backdoor to economic migration”.

Although she noted that there is a need for economic migration, she said this needs to be done via a different legal route.

The Minister also said that the EU Pact will provide enhanced security checks and include a “comprehensive return policy”.

It aims to cut down on the phenomenon known as ‘secondary movement’, whereby people seek international protection in a country different to the one in which they first arrived.

The Justice Minister said this is of “particular benefit to Ireland as so much migration here involves secondary movement among people who have already either sought or been granted asylum in other member states”.

Speaking to reporters today, McEntee said it was estimated that between 50 and 70% of IP applicants to Ireland are secondary movers.

She also confirmed that the legislation won’t be enacted in the lifetime of the Government, but will be in place for 2026, when Ireland’s management of IP applicants will be fully aligned with the rest of the European Union for the first time.

She said the next steps will be to bring the legislation to the Justice Committee, and then to both houses of the Oireachtas.

The government will invest heavily in staff, technology, and processing systems in order to fulfill its obligations under the pact, and expects European funding to be made available to do this.

McEntee said today the appropriate approach is to work collectively at an EU level “to ensure that we have an efficient and cost effective systems”.

Accommodation strategy 

Meanwhile, the accommodation strategy announced by Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman includes an expanded program of designing and constructing new reception and integration centres, as well as upgrading existing ones.

The Government has said that these reforms will see a move away from full reliance on private providers and towards State-owned accommodation.

It aims to increase the number of State-owned beds in the system from the current 1,184 to 14,000 by 2028 – four times the previous commitment under the White Paper – while reducing the number of commercial beds from 26,997 to 21,000.

Latest figures show that there are currently around 28,000 people living in accommodation run by the International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS).

As of Tuesday, an additional 1,465 IP applicants were waiting on an offer of accommodation from the government.

It comes on foot of a record 13,651 IP applicants arriving in Ireland in 2022 and an additional 13,270 arrivals last year – up from 4,470 in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.

The new strategy will work on an assumed continuation of this trend, predicting between 13,000 and 16,000 new arrivals to Ireland every year.

O’Gorman today told reporters that the strategy will entail direct provision centres being upgraded to reception and integration centres, with the centres in Athlone and Knockalisheen being the first to undergo this process.

Additional State-owned sites will then be secured to be used as both reception and integration centres, and accomodation centres. 

It is expected that commercial buildings such as office blocks will be leased, though the government would consider buying such buildings if there was a reasonable opportunity to do so.

The government has already engaged with some commercial providers and identified buildings that it could potentially use to house asylum seekers.

The government also plans to acquire State land and buildings owned by the Health Service Executive (HSE) that are not currently in use, with the hope that this could potentially lead to accommodation quickly coming on stream.

The Department of Integration has already liaised with the Land Development Agency to identify sites that are not suitable for residential housing due to their location or other factors, but which it may deem suitable for use for refugee accommodation.

In the next few weeks, the Department will then issue an expression of interest for turnkey and near turnkey properties for purchase, as well as properties that will require a “more significant degree of upgrading and renovation”.

O’Gorman remarked that the “current system of accommodation isn’t working” and is too reliant on private providers – 96% of accommodation for international protection applicants is commercially provided. 

“We need to have a system where the State holds the reins on accommodation, its location and its standards,” said O’Gorman.

He said that over the next five years, the State will reduce reliance on the private sector and “move to a model that gives better value for money”.

O’Gorman said the strategy will include the delivery of additional beds over the coming months via renovations and rapid build modular units “to bridge the gap between the immediate crisis and the long-term reform”.

The Department said that the phased and planned approach to accommodation “will allow for enhanced community engagement to ensure planning for the provision of essential public services”, and to assist with welcoming new arrivals.

“It is the intention of this new strategy to end the use of unsuitable accommodation options currently relied upon, such as the sole hotel remaining in a given town,” it added.

The government has faced intense pressure over the accommodation crisis, as some asylum seekers took to sleeping in tents on Dublin’s Mount Street near the International Protection Office. They were moved suddenly to accommodation in Co Wicklow earlier this month.

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Jane Matthews, Diarmuid Pepper, Stephen McDermott and Eoghan Dalton