In the summer of 1998, four young Congolese men lived in a large, ramshackle house on Montpelier Hill in Dublin 7, divided into more than a dozen apartments. When I met them in their studio, they were playing Scrabble to improve their English.
Their vocabulary had greatly improved since their arrival in Ireland. They helpfully called out a number of new English words that they had also learned that had never made it to the Scrabble board. It was the occasional hurtful insults these young men of color encountered from random strangers on the street.
Ireland’s attitude towards asylum seekers has always been somewhat ambivalent. In a quarter of a century since 1998, no mass anti-immigrant movement or party has established itself. But, at times, public and political sentiment has turned against asylum seekers, due to the number of entries into the state.
In the early 2000s, the annual number of applicants for international protection peaked at almost 12,000. Arguments have been made that the Irish system was too open and served as a ‘pull factor’, and that most immigrants were economic migrants. The political response was the introduction of a direct offer, as well as a citizenship referendum in 2004, which stripped Irish-born children of foreign nationals of the automatic right of residence.
Since 2003, numbers have remained low and stable, generally at around 5,000 per year. It has been until now.
As well as some 35,000 Ukrainian refugees arriving in Ireland since the Russian invasion in March, there has been a parallel increase in the number of non-Ukrainian asylum seekers entering the state.
In the first five months of this year, 4,896 applications for international protection in Ireland were received. That was a 700% increase over the same period in 2021. Due to Covid, last year was not typical. That was still a 164% increase from 2019, the last consecutive comparable year. If the trajectory continues like this, it will approach, if not exceed, the highest annual figures on record.
Why the surge? Politicians and NGOs cite a number of reasons. One is undoubtedly the UK’s political decision to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing. There is anecdotal evidence that Ireland can be seen as a backdoor. The marked increase in the number of Somalis applying here indicates this – Britain has long been a favored destination.
“It’s very clear there has been a displacement effect – the UK is sending a hostile message that people should go elsewhere,” says Piaras Mac Éinrí, lecturer in migrant studies at UCC .
Brendan Griffin, a Fine Gael TD from Kerry, also believes the UK’s Rwandan policy is having an impact here. “I also think that some countries have taken in a disproportionate number of Ukrainian refugees and they don’t have room for other nationalities. Some of them drifted to Ireland.
The result is an impending crisis. “It’s a mad train coming down the track towards us, and we have no way of stopping it,” a minister told The Irish Times dejectedly.
As of June 5, 11,873 people were living in international protective housing across the state, mostly direct benefits. This figure is up from 7,000 at the end of 2021 – it was also 7,000 in 2020. On top of that, an estimated 24,000 Ukrainian refugees are in emergency accommodation. And new asylum seekers are arriving in Ireland at the rate of 1,500 a month.
“Two weeks ago the mantra was indirect provision, home-based accommodation for everyone. It’s all changed. Right now, the actual supply of any housing might not even be there. That’s how far things have gone in a relatively short period of time,” says Griffin.
It’s not just accommodation. Paul Kehoe, the Fine Gael TD who chairs the Oireachtas Committee on Education, talks about schools that have accepted children in some areas reaching breaking point with overcrowded classrooms. Referring to images of people sleeping on the floors of conference rooms, he said. “This is wrong. We all know this is wrong. The government is shaking trees everywhere to find accommodation. This is becoming an absolute nightmare for the government and will get worse as the months pass.”
This feeling resonates everywhere. The tipping point will come in September when student accommodation will no longer be available.
“There may have been hope that the war in Ukraine would now be over, but it is clear that this will not happen,” says Mac Einrí.
“We have a housing crisis from September. We don’t know what the government will do about it. They need to let us know what their plans are,” he says.
The problems are many, but the solutions are more difficult to find. Some of his colleagues now believe it was a mistake on the part of Taoiseach Micheál Martin to make an unlimited offer in terms of the number of Ukrainian refugees. “I’m all for immigrants of all kinds,” says a government source. “But he leaves a message there to keep coming. We are now coming to a point where there is no place left to go. »
Fianna Fáil Senator Pat Casey said a clear path was needed to deal with the growing numbers. TD Social Democrats Jennifer Whitmore makes a similar point and argues the system has been slow to keep pace with the crisis.
For example, the number of pledged housing offers that were accepted was low. At a Cabinet sub-committee last Monday, it was decided that Health Service Executive contact tracing teams would be used to speed up the vetting process. There are also plans for the Office of Public Works to build modular housing, for local authorities to vacate vacant properties and for tents to be erected in places like Gormanstown.
But none of this will happen immediately. Beyond that, there are systemic issues. Routine evictions were suspended during the Covid pandemic and have not resumed. Persons seeking protection cannot be turned away. It takes two years for a first decision on their status, and five years or more if they have appealed. By the time a final decision is made, the person is rooted in Ireland and in the communities. Eviction becomes problematic.
Even at the end of the process, there are delays. There are parliamentary questions about deportation orders that were issued as early as 2002 but have not yet been executed.
“The treatment takes far too long and is inhumane,” says Whitmore. “Here families connect and call Ireland home. The government must ensure that asylum seekers’ claims are processed quickly and fairly.