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Taoiseach Simon Harris Alamy Stock Photo

Barriers, legal threats and 'Team Ireland': The Government’s new approach to asylum seekers

There are currently over 1,500 asylum seekers without accommodation in the state.

JUST OVER A week ago, Taoiseach Simon Harris told the Dáil that Ireland is not a country where “makeshift shantytowns” are allowed to develop. 

Less than six months before, however, the Department of Integration was directing asylum seekers to day service providers handing out tents and sleeping bags.

This was because the state had run out of accommodation for those seeking international protection.

Since the shortage of accommodation became once again more pronounced towards the end of last year, the Government has failed to get a handle on the situation.

In recent weeks, though, there has been a noticeable shift in the Government’s response.

Yesterday morning, Taoiseach Simon Harris spoke of a “Team Ireland” response to this challenge and said “the days are gone” where encampments are allowed to develop for weeks or months on end.

He said while the State takes its obligations seriously in relation to providing shelter for those seeking asylum, it now needs an approach that looks at using “all the levers” at the disposal of the Government. 

One of those levers it appears Harris is looking at is deterrence.

But this change — from handing out tents to threats of arrest if tents are erected — doesn’t seem to be improving the situation.

Likewise, the placing of steel barriers in areas from where tents have been removed is already proving unpopular with the public. 

Without a serious increase in accommodation from the Government or a serious reduction in the number of international protection seekers, it’s hard to see how this new approach would result in anything other than more public spaces being barricaded off in Dublin City.

An escalating crisis

December of last year was not the first time the state had run out of accommodation for people seeking international protection, but the numbers of those without shelter are now at an all time high.

This time last year, in May 2023, approximately 480 asylum sleepers were sleeping rough in Dublin. 

As of this Tuesday, 1,825 asylum seekers in the state are without accommodation. 

The Taoiseach’s comments last week about shantytowns came in response to increasing concerns for the welfare of over 290 homeless asylum seekers who had been sleeping rough in tents for months in the area around Mount Street, Dublin. 

The following morning, the camp was removed by Government and fencing and steel barriers were installed along the pathways from where tents were removed.

“You can’t have a scenario where in a very ad hoc fashion these kind of tented villages are nearly allowed to develop,” the Taoiseach said that day as he thanked the agencies involved in clearing the tents for their “excellent work”.

“The operation doesn’t end now and I will expect all of the agency partners to continue to work together to respond and, at what is a difficult, challenging time, to meet the humanitarian needs of people, but also to enforce and uphold the laws of this country,” Harris said. 

It wasn’t just welfare concerns though that had led to the encampment being removed, a little over a month earlier a similar exercise failed when the Government tried to clear the area ahead of St. Patrick’s Day. Many of the men returned to the area that time when they saw the poor conditions in the accommodation offered to them at a site in the Dublin Mountains.

One man said he felt that they were treated “like animals”.

Last week’s operation did not see people return to the area on the same scale, probably due to a combination of the steel barriers, an improvement in the accommodation offered to people, and a letter given to those being relocated which said they risked arrest and prosecution if they returned to the area.

However, it later emerged that a number of other asylum seekers – who the Government believed were staying at locations other than Mount Street – sought accommodation at the international protection centre in Citywest but were refused.

By the start of this week, around 100 tents had appeared on Dublin’s Grand Canal. 

Today, the occupants of the tents were told they were committing an offence and offered alternative accommodation. Some 163 people who had been sleeping rough along the canal were bussed to different locations.

The tents were destroyed and barriers were erected in their place. 

New Approach from a New Taoiseach

One reporter put it to Taoiseach Simon Harris during a press conference yesterday that the Government “can’t go on playing whack-a-mole with people’s lives”. 

Harris seemed to reject this idea and even said he was a “bit confused” when another reporter asked him if we can expect these encampments to become a regular occurrence, given the fact there is no other accommodation available to people. 

“I’m a little confused because I mean, the alternative option available to me as Taoiseach is to just say this is acceptable, this is grand. It’s not.

“That we would allow a situation develop on Grand Canal and stay there for weeks and months…

Those days are gone. Those days are over.

That’s not gonna happen,” he said.

While that might sound reasonable, with over 1,500 asylum seekers still without accommodation, it is more than likely that we will see further encampments develop. Particularly given the fact that these unaccommodated people are offered accommodation ahead of those who are not part of the larger encampments. 

As he spoke, the Taoiseach made clear he wasn’t as confused as he first claimed to be and acknowledged the likelihood of this happening.

He continued: “I’m not naive in relation to this. I understand very clearly issues will arise. I get that.

But the difference now is that those issues aren’t allowed to fester.

“And those issues aren’t allowed to go on and on and on.”

It’s clear the new Taoiseach is taking a more hands-on approach to the lack of asylum seeker accommodation than his predecessor, one with deterrence at its core.

Whether this approach will have the effect desired by the Government remains to be seen.

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