Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Nithe i dTosach Suíonna - Commencement Matters

International Protection

1:00 pm

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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The civic engagement team of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth held a meeting regarding the Thornton Hall site on 29 May as the Government had proposed its use as a refugee and asylum seeker accommodation centre. The national lead on civic engagement, Eibhlin Byrne, briefed me along with other Members of the Oireachtas from the north Dublin and east Meath region at this meeting in May. At the time of our meeting, the Garda was completely unaware of the proposed repurposing of Thornton Hall. We were given assurances that this disastrous plan would be operating by the end of June. It is now July and as we prepare to break for the summer recess, there is no clear plan in sight as to what will happen next. Thornton Hall has been designated as a site for a prison. Turning Thornton Hall into a tent city is a poorly planned emergency response to failed migration policy.

In March, a press release stated that the Government agreed a new comprehensive accommodation strategy for international protection, IP, applicants. The press release outlines that the Government's plan will see a move away from full reliance on private providers and towards a core of State-owned accommodation. Is that a coded way of saying we are going to put people in tents until we can think of something better? It says clearly in this press release that the use of State land for prefabricated and modular units is a distinct part of the plan. Thornton Hall has clearly been considered for modular or tented accommodation for months now. The public is still none the wiser.

Ms Byrne also added that approximately six sites across Ireland were also being considered for similar tent city arrangements. These proposals are horrific and inhumane. It is outrageous that our Government is behaving in a secretive manner with respect to its national plans. The Thornton Hall tent site is a terrible idea. If it is designed to be a blueprint for a national solution to a migrant crisis, it is an abysmal failure. Many people have raised very pertinent and valid concerns about water. In a recent interview with Gript media, Councillor Gillian Toole added that a strategic housing development was refused there due to the lack of water infrastructure. Thornton Hall is also on a flight path. There are serious concerns regarding sound pollution for any form of human habitation there.

We have heard time and again from the Government about international obligations and how communities have demonstrated great solidarity and welcome for those who come here seeking refuge. That is a very narrow view of the story in Ireland today. Towns have been destroyed. Hotels in small towns in Ireland are akin to town halls and so much more beyond that. This Government has no regard for the people of Ireland. It serves international pressures and forces instead of the electorate. I call on the Government, after the disastrous vote for the EU migration pact, to finally listen to the people of this country. The Irish people want sensible, reasonable border control. They want concrete plans and a functional visa programme, and sensible humanitarian policies. We are almost certainly heading to a general election in the autumn. I urge candidates to talk less about international obligations and more about national obligations.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Ireland and many other European countries are experiencing a significant increase in people seeking international protection. The arrival numbers remain significantly elevated. In the first 26 weeks of this year, more than 10,000 people have arrived in Ireland seeking accommodation from the State, averaging 386 people per week. This is more than five times the average from 2017 to 2019. The highest weekly applications so far this year has been 610 applicants.

The Government is making every effort to accommodate people seeking international protection against a backdrop of unprecedented demand. However, the situation remains challenging, and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth cannot provide accommodation to all applicants.More than 2,300 single men are awaiting an offer of IPAS accommodation. Against this backdrop, the Government is considering all offers of accommodation in line with the comprehensive accommodation strategy approved by it on 27 March this year, to which the Senator referred. This revised strategy followed a review of the implementation approach for the White Paper due to the exponential growth in applications for international protection, with more than 30,000 new arrivals since January 2022, whereas the White Paper was originally based on 3,500 new arrivals each year. The review included inputs from the White Paper programme board and the external advisory group.

The Government-approved comprehensive accommodation strategy seeks to address the current accommodation shortfall while reforming the system over the longer term to ensure the State will always be able to meet its international commitments. The reforms will see a move away from full reliance on private providers, as the Senator acknowledged, and towards a core of State-owned accommodation, thereby delivering 14,000 State-owned beds by 2028, which is quadruple the previous commitment under the White Paper. This will be supplemented, as required, by high-standard commercial providers. Accommodation in the new strategy is being delivered through the following multistrand approach: the utilisation of State land for prefabricated and modular units; the conversion of commercial buildings; the targeted purchase of medium and larger turnkey properties; the design and build of new reception and integration centres; and the upgrading of IPAS centres.

As part of this planning, the Department is working with the Irish Prison Service on a handover regarding services at Thornton Hall. A review is currently ongoing regarding the current status of electricity, water and sewage capability at Thornton Hall. The Department is engaging with partners to complete relevant environmental assessments. The Department will work on several options, including short and long-term solutions to infrastructure challenges for accommodation for IP applicants at Thornton Hall. The immediate focus is on sourcing State-owned land where tented accommodation can be provided and vacant State-owned buildings. Additionally, an expression of interest process has been launched by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth for the sourcing of suitable properties for acquisition or lease as international protection accommodation.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I am disappointed by the Minister of State's answer for two reasons. First, much of what she said has been lifted word for word from the March press release, which leads me to my second point, namely, she has completely ignored the specifics of my Commencement matter. I asked the Minister to give an update on the Thornton Hall site, which is being considered for use for refugee and asylum seeker accommodation, for details of the lease the Department holds, its duration and the overall size of the site being leased. I asked for three specific points to be clarified. I asked for details of the lease and I did not receive that from the Minister of State today. I asked for the lease duration and the overall size of the site being leased. I also asked this of Eibhlin Byrne, the national lead on civic engagement, and have received no response since.

Whoever advised the Minister of State on answering this Commencement matter should maybe have read my submission before answering. Is it now formal Government policy to ignore Members of these Houses on matters that are important to the public? I will leave it to the Minister of State to raise this with the Cabinet. It is not good enough. These are questions that the public want answered. There is one thing that I am sure the 56,000 people who are on the social housing list will not be very happy with. The Government is going to target and purchase medium and larger turnkey properties to deal with IPAS accommodation. The Irish people are not going to be happy with that.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. We know she is busy and we appreciate her taking the time to come to the Seanad, as always.