Thursday, 14 July 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Refugee Resettlement Programme
We have an absolute crisis with regard to how we are dealing with refugees in this country. We awoke this morning to news of the situations in Dublin Airport, Citywest and beyond.
However, those of us who have been engaged on the ground not just since the Ukrainian war but before that in terms of the situation for refugees coming to this country through the international protection accommodation services, IPAS, system have known there has been a crisis for a long time. It has never or seldom made front-page news. We now have a situation where the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has found itself totally overwhelmed. From the start we called for a cross-governmental approach and for something as basic as having individuals of expertise and experience to be in reception centres and hotels to deal with refugees, and we have generally been ignored. That is coming home to roost now and the people who are suffering are those who are coming to this country from wars in Ukraine and elsewhere and who are sleeping on the floor in Dublin Airport or in overcrowded conditions in Citywest or in a reception centre managed by a private entity.
With regard to Citywest, at present there are residents there who are beneficiaries of the EU temporary protection directive, TPD, category of refugees, mainly Ukrainian people, and there are also people there under protection in the direct provision system from IPAS. The issue is not the mix or, indeed, the two systems. The issue is that one category, those under the TPD, is being processed in 24 hours on average, while others are being processed in two weeks on average. These are all human beings, and this is absolutely indefensible. It is understandable that a lot of the media coverage is focused on Ukraine, but this has laid bare how inhumane our treatment of refugees has been for many years despite the best intentions of the Irish public and many in politics. I have huge concerns about the conditions in Citywest. The communal areas are being used as temporary shelter for people who have been displaced. Citywest is not meeting minimum standards. This is coming from public health officials who are working there. There are major issues with regard to education. It is the summer holidays now but we are only a few weeks away from schools reopening - we were discussing back-to-school matters last week in the House - and 33% of young people coming to this country under the schemes do not have a school place.
We now have details about what is going to happen in Gormanston Camp. I would like to hear a further update on that with regard to this tented village. However, we are getting a sense that the Government is downplaying this issue. This is not a temporary issue. It has been building for a number of months. The system appears to be totally overwhelmed. The community response being led by the local authorities was never fit for purpose and never met the real needs of refugees in this country.
Will people be at the airport for more than one night? What will happen to arrivals today and over the weekend? What washing and laundry facilities are available at the airport? Have people sufficient access to water and so forth with the heatwave that is coming and the rise in temperatures? What safeguarding measures are in place there? What is going to be done about the two-tier approach that is being applied to all human beings who are coming to this country as refugees?
I am replying on behalf of the Minister.
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine on 24 February and the invoking of the temporary protection directive by the European Union shortly afterwards, the Department has worked intensively as part of the cross-governmental response to the Ukraine crisis. The operational challenges brought about by responding to the conflict are significant. Our country has never experienced an influx of displaced persons like the one that we have seen over the past months. Numbers seeking international protection have also increased, adding to accommodation capacity issues. The role of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is focused on the immediate, short-term accommodation needs of those who have arrived here. To date, more than 41,000 people have arrived in Ireland and in excess of 31,000 of those have been referred to us seeking accommodation from the State. Overseeing the provision of accommodation on this scale during this timeframe for all those who require it remains immensely challenging. Due to the urgent need to source accommodation, a broad range of accommodation types have been contracted, including emergency accommodation. While this is not ideal, the priority is to place people fleeing the conflict in safe and secure accommodation.
As of 13 July, the Department has contractual arrangements in place with approximately 450 accommodation services. The Department has contracted over 25,000 beds across hotels, guest houses, bed and breakfast accommodation, hostels, student accommodation, commercial self-catering accommodation and certain other repurposed settings, with additional capacity also being pursued through accommodation pledged by the general public and State-owned or private properties which may be suitable for short-term accommodation. Given the number of people arriving, which has increased in recent weeks, sourcing suitable accommodation continues to be a major challenge. In seeking to address accommodation needs, safety and security are the paramount considerations.
The Government is committed to delivering a humanitarian response to welcome people seeking protection in Ireland as part of the European Union's overall response. The scale of the response to this crisis has been unprecedented and Irish people have displayed an incredible level of generosity in their support and pledges of accommodation. The Irish Red Cross Society has put in place a national pledge mechanism for channelling the offers of accommodation which many members of the public wish to provide. Over 25,000 offers of accommodation have been pledged through the Irish Red Cross Society. Implementing partners include local authorities, the Irish Red Cross Society, the International Organisation of Migration and the Peter McVerry Trust. As of 13 July, over 2,155 people have been successfully matched to 776 pledged accommodations, with placements taking place daily in multiple locations across the country. The process of placing people in pledged accommodation takes time. It is a complex process and needs to be done correctly for the safety and security of those fleeing.
Notwithstanding those measures, over the past number of weeks there has been a very significant increase in the number of people seeking access to the international protection service and this is causing a severe shortage of available accommodation for both people arriving from Ukraine and international protection applicants. Based on those numbers and with capacity maximised, the prudent decision was taken in the interests of health and safety to temporarily close the Citywest transit hub to new arrivals. To minimise overcrowding, incoming arrivals will remain in Dublin Airport if they do not have an alternative source of accommodation until more accommodation becomes available. It should be noted that this measure is temporary in nature. Staff from the Department are on-site at both the airport and Citywest locations and the focus is very clearly on assisting those who are most vulnerable. Furthermore, the Government is working intensively to put alternative arrangements in place with immediate effect, and this will include the use of tented accommodation in Gormanston from next week, as well as other emergency solutions that are being developed. The Taoiseach and relevant Ministers are meeting today to discuss the situation and to review the current policies and processes.
While current circumstances are undoubtedly challenging, it is important to acknowledge and pay tribute to the efforts of the Irish people in the outpouring of support and response for those fleeing conflict. This extends to individuals and families, the many volunteers under the co-ordination of the local community forum, the local authorities, the Defence Forces, State agencies such as Tusla and the HSE, and Departments.
I will refer later to the Deputy's other questions.
On the tribute to the efforts of the Irish people and the outpouring of support and response, I will tell the Minister of State what happens when a volunteer group interfaces with one of the private, for-profit companies that are being brought in by IPAS to run certain reception centres and to protect the basic human rights and dignity of refugees. We have an amazing volunteer group of people in Swords who were working with a number of different reception centres and creating great links with the community of Ukrainians that have arrived. However, after a big public event to which everyone was invited at the Emmaus Centre just north of Swords, the company that runs it now, Allpro Services, has, in effect, frozen out the group of local volunteers. An atmosphere has been created in this reception centre, which was very positive at the start, whereby the advocates, the spokespeople and the Ukrainian people who were linking in with local volunteers have been ostracised, to the extent that one was removed on 16 June. I have made the Minister and the Department aware of it, and I have been in contact about it. It is the removal of Alexander Neeshkasha.
We cannot continue to rely on private facility management companies to come in and look after refugees. What happened there is that we had a positive situation where the local volunteers were able to go in, create links and bond the community early. They have now been frozen out and the advocates from the community who were working there have been splintered.
This company, Allpro Services, is operating in a manner over which none of us have any oversight. This is what will happen and it will become the norm if the State does not get a handle on it. We are not saying that it is easy, but the processes are so slack at the moment that this is what is happening. It is having a real, detrimental impact on those who are currently seeking refuge here.
I reiterate that the Government is not downplaying the issue. This is really, really serious. We understand. I spoke to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, about it yesterday, and to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien. We are facing an increasingly challenging situation from a humanitarian perspective. The Deputy has raised the issue in Swords around local volunteers. We need a combination of voluntary supports and professional services. That has to be the case. It is important because of the sheer scale of the challenge that we are facing. I am more than happy to raise that matter with the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman. I am sure the Deputy has raised it with him himself.
Separately, on the temporary protection directive and what appears to be a two-tier system, there is no doubt the temporary protection directive was brought in as an immediate response to the Ukraine war. It is a different system than the international protection, IP, system. There is no doubt that, in terms of timeframe or processing, that was going to be the case. The Government just making every effort to address the immediate challenges around what has happened over the last number of weeks. We have reached capacity at every level. It is important that we continue to make those efforts and support the families. This will not be resolved in the short term. The numbers will still come in. We have to continue to work and adapt. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has spoken to me about seeking all available options across the country for accommodation. We appreciate the voluntary efforts of which the Deputy speaks across communities and across the country, which have been overwhelming. I will take those points back to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman.