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urgent appeal

No buildings available so far after Minister's most recent urgent refugee accommodation appeal

Minister Roderic O’Gorman wrote to his ministerial colleagues recently in an urgent appeal for more properties.

FOLLOWING LAST MONTH’S letter from Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman to all ministers renewing his call for urgent help in finding vacant buildings to house refugees, a number of departments say they have reached out to bodies and are reviewing their property stock. 

O’Gorman asked for sports centres, conference facilities, arts centres, student leisure centres and any other large buildings that are “deemed safe” to house refugees.

“What is needed are large halls where camp beds, mattresses, sleeping bags could be set out for people,” O’Gorman said in the letter to all ministers.

While departments are understood to be in the process of reaching out to bodies within their sectors to find out if more accommodation is available, it is understood that no new buildings have been immediately made available following the call out. 

It is understood that there is growing frustration within O’Gorman’s department over the pace of progress in both identifying and making available properties.

Sources state that the process takes time, but they are hopeful that some additional capacity can be found.

However, they added that the common catchphrase that a ‘whole of Government approach’ is needed cannot just be a soundbite and must actually result in action in finding further premises. 

It remains the case that there is no further capacity within contracted accommodation such as hotels and the Citywest complex which remains closed to new entrants. 

Government sources said that O’Gorman’s plea for urgent help could be “difficult to meet” as buildings that have been identified already by some departments are either not appropriate or not available.

TheJournal contacted all Government departments when the letter was issued, asking how many buildings, to date, each has provided for the housing of refugees since the onset of the crisis.

Departments were also asked if a renewed effort would be made following the minister’s letter to find large vacant buildings that could be used.

While a number of departments did not respond, a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications said that following the initial call from O’Gorman, where he made an appeal for assistance from departments in December, Minister Eamon Ryan wrote to all bodies under his aegis requesting their assistance with the identification of suitable properties. 

They said many bodies “were quick to respond and a number of premises were offered”.

Officials engaged with the Department of the Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) regarding their suitability, said the statement.

However, none were deemed immediately useful due to a variety of factors, including insufficient space or current functionality, and associated tenancy and planning considerations, they said. 

“Officials remain in contact with DCEDIY and with agencies to determine the extent to which these challenges might be surmountable,” said the spokesperson.

Offers of buildings

The Department of Transport said in its response that it conducts its business from a number of locations around the country in buildings that are owned / leased, or managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The department said it had planned, in consultation with the OPW, to relocate from their existing building in Shannon to a new office and warehouse facility which had been purchased by the OPW.

“Given the acute refugee housing needs, and our commitment to supporting the broader Government efforts to address the accommodation crisis, we offered, through OPW, to make the new office building available to DCEDIY. 

“We understand that the OPW and DCEDIY are progressing with plans in this regard,” said a spokesperson.

They added that the department’s own properties consist of Coast Guard buildings which are generally small in nature, and are required for the conduct of Irish Coast Guard facilities so do not fit the description of accommodation being sought for the housing of refugees.

The Department of Housing said that given that many of the buildings put forward to them are privately owned, it would be inappropriate to publish the details of individual buildings. 

However, it said the refurbishment programme was set up in 2022 as part of the wider humanitarian response to the invasion of Ukraine.  

Local authorities 

Local authorities were asked to identify vacant multi-occupancy properties within their areas that had the potential to be used for accommodation for those arriving from Ukraine. 

A significant numbers of potential projects were notified to the housing department. 

“Some bed spaces could be brought into use immediately or were already earmarked by International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS). These were passed directly to the DCEDIY for follow up.

“Indeed, 121 buildings were identified initially which required little or no refurbishment work and were passed to DCEDIY in such a manner (with a capacity of over 5,000 spaces).”

The housing spokesperson said the department retained the more complex projects for progression as part of the medium-long term accommodation solution.

These projects involve significant levels of renovation in order to be habitable.

Of those premises requiring significant refurbishment under the programme, there are currently 61 projects being progressed with expected capacity for approximately 2,700 people once delivered.

Of these, there are procurement or works underway on 23 projects, with a further 38 projects at a survey/survey review stage. 

The scheme whereby members of the public offer house refugees in vacant properties they own has been roundly criticised by many for not being administered properly, with many reporting not getting call backs about their offers. 

However, the department said thousands had offered up properties, but failed to disclose how many had been taken up. 

“Local Authorities are also administering the Offer a Home Scheme and to date some property offers of 1,260 have been made,” said the spokesperson. 

The spokesperson went on to state that the housing and local government divisions are updated a number of times a week by the Integration Department about the accommodation situation.

“Local authorities have taken a number of direct actions to support the Government’s response, including standing up rest centres. The Department of Housing does not have any property available as its office accommodation is provided through OPW,” said the spokesperson.

Schools

There have been recent reports that considerations were being given to house refugees in school buildings over the summer months, however, it is believed that Education Minister Norma Foley does not have the power to compel school boards to do so. 

The Department of Education said in a statement to TheJournal that “it should be noted that only a small percentage of school properties are owned directly by the State – those under the auspices of education and training boards. One vacant property has been made available for longer term accommodation purposes to date”.

It stated that the department has worked with the DCEDIY and relevant stakeholders to facilitate the provision of emergency accommodation in a small number of schools during school holidays.

“The department will continue to work closely with all parties in this context. It must be noted that the pressures on school capacity are significant, taking account of normal demographics, provision for children with special educational needs and also for migrant children and young people, including those from Ukraine,” concluded the statement. 

The Justice Department said that it previously reviewed its full portfolio of buildings, many of which are owned or leased by the OPW, and provided details of unoccupied buildings to the Department of Housing and and the OPW in response to previous requests for accommodation for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Thornton site 

In response to previous requests both for Ukraine and Housing for All, the department said it also flagged that a significant portion of the Thornton site in North County Dublin could be made available if deemed suitable for the accommodation needs by the responsible bodies.

“While there are no vacant or derelict buildings owned by the Department of Justice which appear to come within the scope of the most recent request, the department is keeping its estate under review and if anything is identified it will be discussed with DCEDIY,” said a department spokesperson.

The Department of Health said it has also consulted with the DCEDIY over the course of 2022 in relation to the sourcing of properties which may be suitable for use in providing accommodation for refugees.  

As part of this engagement, the Department of Health said it provided a comprehensive overview of those properties currently owned by the HSE and surplus to health service requirements which may be suitable for the provision of accommodation.

Some 300 properties were identified in the overview and details of these properties were provided to DCEDIY in 2022. 

In addition to the list of properties, the HSE have also seconded a key member of their estate accommodation team to the Interdepartmental Ukrainian Refugee Accommodation response, said a spokesperson.

The Department of Social Protection said the only building owned by the department is Aras Mhic Dhiarmada, the department’s headquarters building, adding that other offices, including Intreo Centres, are owned or leased by the OPW.

The Department of Business and Enterprise said the Companies Registration Office, the Intellectual Property Office of Ireland, the Labour Court and the Workplace Relations Commission, are tenants in ten buildings across Dublin, Carlow, Cork, Kilkenny, Ennis and Sligo.

The Department of Rural Development said it does not own any vacant buildings which could be used to house Beneficiaries of Temporary Protection or International Protection applicants.

All other departments failed to respond to requests.  

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