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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C
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UN refugee agency says it is 'completely unpalatable' that asylum seekers are homeless in Ireland

The head of Ireland’s UNHCR office says the State can learn to accommodate current levels of asylum seekers.

THE UNITED NATIONS has said it is “completely unpalatable” that some asylum seekers who entered Ireland this week have had to sleep rough because of a lack of accommodation options available to them.    

The head of the Irish office of the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Enda O’Neill also says that Ireland is capable of accepting the number of people who are currently seeking asylum here – but that now is the time for the State to build a system to do so adequately.

In an interview with The Journal, O’Neill suggests that Ireland is “clearly in breach” of its legal obligations around asylum seekers after it stopped providing emergency shelter to international protection applicants at the Citywest centre earlier this week.

It comes after the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission made similar remarks yesterday, with figures from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth showing that 55 asylum seekers were left homeless up to Thursday.

“In very simple terms, when you can’t provide accommodation to people, there’s no alternative to people living on the streets,” O’Neill says.

“That’s something that’s completely unpalatable, I think, to the vast majority of people, and it’s clearly in breach of the legal obligations that are there.”

The obligation to provide accommodation for asylum seekers is set out in multiple places, including the UN’s Human Rights Office and the European Union’s Reception Conditions Directive.

The UNHCR believes that Ireland should be able to provide such accommodation, according to O’Neill:

There may be a perception out there that there’s nothing that can be done. We don’t believe that; we believe that it is certainly possible to find adequate shelter.

“Maybe not of the standard that we would like, but certainly to meet people’s basic needs, which is a legal obligation.”

His comments come after repeated claims from the Government that sourcing accommodation for those entering the country is becoming increasingly difficult.

A record 13,319 people sought international protection in Ireland in 2022, while almost 70,000 refugees from Ukraine were also accommodated here last year.

Last week, the Government also called for those in “places of safety” not to travel to Ireland.

However, O’Neill warns that current discussions around the provision of accommodation suggest that Ireland is experiencing abnormally high levels of asylum seeker arrivals compared to other countries when that is not the case.

He says that Ireland’s experience is common across the EU, highlighting figures which show a similarly high or higher proportion of Ukrainian refugees entering countries in eastern Europe.

According to these figures, Poland is hosting around 1.5 million people from Ukraine, equivalent to 4% of its population; Czechia is hosting another 480,000 Ukrainians, while Slovakia is hosting 100,000.  

“I think the danger is that all the coverage in recent weeks and months gives the impression to the general public that we’re experiencing something out of the ordinary that other countries don’t experience, and that we can’t manage,” O’Neill says.

“There’s no reason why we can’t manage it. We have sufficient resources, we have sufficient land. So it’s really it comes down to implementation and appropriate planning and coordination.

As a modern European country that’s doing well, a lot of people want to come here, and a lot of people have a very positive experience when they come here.

“So it’s no surprise that we’re getting increasing numbers. This is the time to build a system, a permanent system that can effectively manage this.”

Anti-immigrant rhetoric

The accommodation of refugees has also been a focus of anti-immigrant and far right figures in recent weeks.

Angry demonstrations have taken place across the country, including in East Wall, Drimnagh, Ballymun, Killarney, Fermoy and Wicklow.

The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (Masi) recently said that rhetoric against those seeking refuge in Ireland is rising and becoming more organised.

However, the UNHCR’s O’Neill suggests that demonstrations against asylum seekers can drown out positive responses in communities because they are more noticeable.

“We’ve seen the protests in the past few weeks that there’s a lot of misinformation and misperceptions around,” he says.

I think we need to acknowledge that there’s a low level of awareness of these issues in the general public, and that’s not uncommon when it’s not something that directly affects them.

“In a way, we are in quite a good position. I think in Ireland, the response from most communities has been really positive.

“The protests and the people who are online really trying to disseminate misinformation are sometimes quite visible, but actually there’s a huge amount of people involved in welcoming people in the communities and a lot of work that goes unseen.”

O’Neill also says that while some people will use the situation to gain political advantage, Ireland still has not elected a far right politician and that he believes most public representatives have been responsible in their comments.

“I do think that we have a way to go in terms of understanding the issues. I think we have a tendency to present it as a kind of an exceptionalism and to not acknowledge that this is the norm.

“But I think in the last week, we’ve seen some really positive responses to the protests.

It’s part of our selling point, actually, that we have such a tolerant and welcoming country. And I think there’s a lot of people who want to make sure that that stays that way.

Two responses

Despite praising the response of the Government and Irish people in dealing with the record influx of asylum seekers last year, O’Neill expresses concerns that international protection applicants are not being treated the same way as Ukrainian refugees.

Following the onset of the war, Ireland abolished visa requirements for all citizens of Ukraine, with refugees entitled to social welfare and allowed to work upon arriving here.

Although welcoming this, O’Neill suggests that the same response is needed for those arriving from all countries.

“On the international protection side, I think there’s a growing realisation that there’s increased numbers coming and that that’s a very challenging situation,” he says.

“I think in some instances, the response to Ukraine was set up as distinct from the IP situation more generally, whereas really, I think we need the same type of response. And that is beginning to happen kind of incidentally, but not by design.”

He calls for a fair distribution of new arrivals around Ireland, and describes it as key that communities and local representatives are involved in the process.

“So far it’s been very centralised at a national level, because they’re under so much pressure and have had to get accommodation as quickly as they can,” he says.

With nothing to indicate that the number of new arrivals will fall this year, he also believes that more open discussion is needed to ensure an adequate response to asylum seekers from the Government and a positive response from communities.  

“All indications are that this is here to stay, and I think there’s an opportunity for us to do a bit more to educate the public,” O’Neill says.

“We shouldn’t be afraid talking about this, as long as it’s in a respectful and constructive way. It’s really important that people learn more about why people are coming here and how the system works.

“But equally it’s really important that States are held to account where the systems aren’t working well.”