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Tents belonging to asylum seekers along the Grand Canal in Dublin (file photo) Alamy Stock Photo
INTERNATIONAL PROTECTION

High Court told State can't simply accommodate homeless asylum seekers 'at the drop of a hat'

The State is alleged to be breaching the rights of almost 2,000 people.

LAST UPDATE | 30 May

THE HIGH COURT has heard that the State cannot house almost 2,000 asylum seekers “at the drop of a hat” amid claims that is is breaching their human rights by leaving them homeless.

Defending itself in a case brought by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), the State told the court that Ireland is experiencing “severe and unprecedented migratory pressures” that have resulted in accommodation shortages.

Senior counsel David Conlan Smith, acting on behalf of the State, said the number of asylum seekers and refugees in State accommodation had increased 11-fold in just two years.

He outlined how there were around 8,600 people in State accommodation in June 2022, a figure which had risen to around 96,000 people by May of this year.

He also claimed that Ireland had seen a 185% increase in international protection applications from 2019 to 2023, compared to 59% across the whole of the EU.

“The situation was not foreseeable, and in essence, this is an argument for force majeure in relation to migratory pressure,” Smith told the court.

The State is responding to an application by IHREC for a court order compelling it to provide all asylum seekers with shelter, food and access to basic hygiene facilities on top of a weekly allowance.

The commission has taken the case against Minister For Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Roderic O’Gorman, the State and Attorney General Rossa Fanning.

It has alleged that the State is breaching the human rights of around 2,000 asylum seekers by not offering them accommodation, an allegation which the State denies.

Smith told the court that the State has made up for the lack of accommodation provision by “significantly enhancing” its approach to those who are left homeless.

He said this included the provision of day services from four charities and the offer of an Additional Needs Payment, on top of a weekly payment of €113.80.

“It cannot be said that [...] this can be described as Government inaction or indifference,” Smith said.

“The State’s position is that the Government has taken the necessary steps in the present circumstances to address the challenge.”

Accommodation

Smith said that the State accepts its human rights obligations and that the “real issue” is ultimately the provision of accommodation.

The commission told the court yesterday that the total weekly payment of €113.80 was “manifestly insufficient” to enable people to obtain accommodation, food and clothing on their own.

It also read an affidavit to the court that said many asylum seekers experience problems booking accommodation like hostels and hotels because they could not afford it and because they lacked sufficient identification to do so, like a passport or driving licence.

However, Smith refuted this today and said that the commission’s argument is that the State should be compelled by the court to provide two options.

The first, he said, would be to “double or triple” the €113.80 allowance to enable asylum seekers to pay for accommodation.

He claimed this would make no difference because of the commission’s own points about a requirement to use passports or credit cards to book rooms.

“The State can’t fix that problem,” Smith told the court.

“If someone arrives in the State without a passport or a national identity card, that’s not something the State can provide; the State can’t give somebody a credit card.”

He said that the second option being proposed was for the State “to provide very large amounts of accommodation immediately”.

Smith told the court that this was “not a real-world argument”, because accommodation “cannot be brought online at the drop of a hat”.

He said that if the court made the declaration requested by the commission, the State would immediately have to accommodate 1,700 people, including through currently vacant spaces.

He went on to claim that the use of those vacant spaces would have the knock-on effect of precluding the State from housing more vulnerable people – such as families, single woman and unaccompanied children – when they arrive in future.

“You have to maintain a level of vacant bed spaces in order to ensure that persons in those categories are accommodated immediately,” Smith said.

He also claimed the declaration sought would mean that the court would end up monitoring how the Government is assigning accommodation and spending money.

Smith said that the State faced further difficulties providing accommodation as a result of “a climate of hostility and some criminality” in parts of the country.

Referring to local protests, he read out examples of five locations that had been earmarked for accommodation which have been subjected to arson attacks or criminal damage.

“How does the State comply with its obligations when it is facing [such] issues?” he asked.

Number of people homeless

Smith went on to question the point at which the State was breaching the human rights of those to whom it had not made an offer of accommodation.

He referred back to affidavits read out by the commission which said that hostels and hotels in Dublin could cost at least €20 a night – the commission had argued that the weekly €113.80 payment would not cover such a rate for seven nights a week.

Smith told the court that asylum seekers could apply for the Additional Needs Payment to enable them to stay in such locations, and that this was made explicit in an information leaflet provided to them.

He said that of 12 asylum seekers who swore affidavits to the court, only four applied for the payment despite all 12 being made aware of it.

“One has to ask, what is the State supposed to do about this situation?” Smith said.

Smith further argued that the commission had not provided clear evidence in relation to the number of asylum seekers who are sleeping rough.

He questioned how the commission could make a request of the court on behalf of 1,700 people who had not yet received an offer of accommodation, when the number of asylum seekers without somewhere to stay is a fraction of that.

He told the court that the number of rough sleepers was “not significant” and that there was “no evidence” that 1,700 people are sleeping in tents around Dublin.

However, Judge Barry O’Donnell said the phrase “not significant” is “a completely subjective descriptor” and “not precise”, and that it is incumbent on the State to “play its cards face up” and provide its own number when questioning the commission’s.

The judge said it was “entirely within the control of the State” to know how many people are sleeping rough and that it was “frustrating” that the court did not have such a figure.

“It’s like that children’s game where somebody is hiding and saying ‘hotter’ and ‘colder’,” the judge said.

The State will conclude its defence in the High Court tomorrow.

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