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  • Senator Sharon Keogan

Senator Sharon Keogan — Immigration Crisis


This is a conversation I have been requesting for some time. I have worked very hard since March last year in my local community where I have been personally involved in the cases of perhaps 900 people who have come to east Meath. I know at first hand the difficulties the Minister is dealing with.

I am glad we are having this debate. Hopefully, it is a watershed moment and we will be able to have these discussions more regularly in future, giving them the time and attention they need until they are resolved or we are at least out of the crisis.

I take issue slightly with the heading of today's statements. It seems a tad limited. We cannot talk about accommodation of any one group in this country without appreciating the wider housing context. Of course, those applying for international protection are not the only ones looking for accommodation. I trust we will be allowed to touch on these points too.

On the issue of terminology, some of us can get tied up with definitions when it comes to migration issues. International protection applicants are, in common parlance, asylum seekers, while beneficiaries of temporary protection are persons who have presented at our borders in possession of Ukrainian documents and have been afforded protection under the EU's temporary protection directive adopted following the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

A further division is as follows. Some of those on the left wing seem to believe that once somebody applies for asylum they are entitled to it, that all persons applying for international protection do so genuinely and that any hesitation on the part of the State to grant them full access and benefits is xenophobic. This is nonsense. No country has a duty to accept all asylum seekers who present at its borders. We have a duty to examine applications, appraise them fairly and separate the genuine applicants from the others. The question we must ask is what constitutes a genuine applicant. When I use the word "genuine", I do not do so in the strict or official sense. The Department of Justice has a litany of tests which are used in the examination of applications and I will not go into those. I mean to ask what a genuine asylum seeker is in the mind of the public. We might think of someone fleeing war, famine or persecution, someone who has removed themselves or their family from immediate danger or someone who would die, be killed or suffer extreme hardship were they to return. This is generally what the public views as a genuine asylum seeker.

However, not all asylum seekers come to our shores fleeing such circumstances. Some come from merely poor countries, in the knowledge that they have a better chance of earning more money and enjoying a higher standard of living in Ireland than they do in their home countries. While these people are technically asylum seekers, they are better described as economic migrants. They have moved to this country to improve their economic prospects, nothing more and nothing less. Most sane people are of the opinion that our duty to these people is lower than the duty we have towards persons fleeing war and persecution. I am one of these people. While I admire the gumption and attitude of self-preservation of those who uproot and move country to better their lot in life, we simply do not owe economic migrants the same level of provision and protection as we do other cohorts of people in need of such.

There are no wars or other human rights emergencies to justify the fact that more than one third of asylum seekers are from states such as Nigeria, Georgia, Algeria and South Africa. Why is this relevant? It is relevant because, in a shocking revelation, the State has limited resources. Each bed, apartment and house occupied by an economic migrant is one that cannot be given to a genuine asylum seeker or Ukrainian. When we are expecting the highest number of people seeking international protection in more than 20 years, this becomes a problem. In January, another 1,300 people turned up on our borders claiming international protection. The Government’s approach is unsustainable. Of course, most of the accommodation is not being occupied by the 19,000 living in IPAS properties but by the more than 70,000 beneficiaries of temporary protection.

These are crazy numbers. This is a small country with a small population but the public transport and civil infrastructure is unable to serve that population. There are not enough houses or apartments to serve the population. In what world did the Government think it would add the guts of 100,000 people into the mix in a year and a half and not cause a crisis? I said early on that, due to resources and logistics, we are limited in our ability to adequately care for the people we take in and, as we take more in, that ability is stretched to breaking.

In 2020, the Government stated it would end direct provision. It has since had the honesty to state that it would no longer be possible to achieve that within the allotted timeframe due to the requirement to handle the processing and accommodation of Ukrainians. I do not think it will happen for a long time. There is simply nowhere to put them if the direct provision centres are removed from the picture. This issue does not seem solvable in the lifetime of one or two Governments.

I recall when the Taoiseach implored the Dáil not to conflate housing and immigration issues lest that play into the hands of the far right. Unfortunately, the issues on the ground are not as neatly separated as the Departments that manage them. In reality, this is not a debate on international protection applicants; it is a debate on housing. The lack of housing in this country is the first mover that knocks over all the other dominos. Until change happens there, it will not be possible in other sectors or areas of national governance. We need to boost our large development plans and defend them against scuppering by opposition and complaints to An Bord Pleanála. We need to allow people to build on land they own. We need to offer grants for the conversion of existing houses into duplexes and for the building of additional family units in large gardens. We need to examine the local use only rule and allow young people to move out of the capital city and build and live in other counties, bringing their skills and money to local communities.

To return to the title of the debate, accommodation for international protection applicants is not rocket science. There are only two variables. If there is a problem, you either build more accommodation or ensure there are fewer international protection applicants via tougher screening, expedited and stricter processing for applicants from safer countries, automatic rejection for those who destroy identification in-flight and the enforcement of deportation orders. The Government has put itself in a very sticky situation but, although it can and will say much more, it cannot say it was not warned.

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