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State’s approach to housing Ukrainian refugees needs to change, says Leo Varadkar

The State’s approach to housing Ukrainian refugees needs to change due to concerns over capacity, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil.

Mr Varadkar said that while there is no limit to Ireland’s compassion for refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, there are limits to capacity at present.

“What is becoming increasingly apparent to everyone, if it isn't the case, it hasn't been the case for a long time, is that while there is no limit on the compassion of the Irish government to the Irish people, there is a limit on our capacity,” Mr Varadkar said, speaking in the Dáil.

“We’re very much at that [capacity] at the moment and we just don't know whether we'd be in a position to provide accommodation, and all those additional supports for another 30,000 to 50,000 people if that number arrived over the course of the next year and based on current numbers, it wouldn’t be far off that.” 

The Taoiseach reiterated comments made by Tánaiste Micheál Martin yesterday that there is an increasing number of Ukrainian refugees leaving other European countries to travel to Ireland to claim asylum here instead.

“There are now a lot of secondary movements, Ukrainians who have been living for months in other parts of Western Europe, relocating to Ireland,” Mr Varadkar said.

“It’s a long-standing issue with international protection, people who have been living safely in other parts of Western Europe for a period of time, then coming to Ireland and claiming asylum.

“Some of that is linked to the fact that we have a better offering in Ireland than would be the case in Northern Ireland, or Britain or France or other countries that are not too far from us.” 

He said that, due to this increase, the Government needed to review Ireland’s offering to Ukrainian refugees to bring it more into line with what other EU member states offer.

“When we look at those things, we have to adjust for the fact that the cost of living is higher in Ireland, that we have very serious housing shortage that we don't want to make worse,” Mr Varadkar said.

“So it's not that we're just going to take the average of what's done in other countries, we're going to have to tailor it for the very real situation that we face here at the moment in this country."

At present, the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive for Ukrainian refugees  — which provides additional rights for refugees fleeing from Ukraine — is set to continue until 2025.

A proposed plan from the Integration Minister Roderic O'Gorman would see new arrivals from Ukraine offered accommodation from the Government for up to three months. After this time period, they would be expected to find accommodation through the private rental sector, or through the existing offer-a-home scheme.

Angry exchanges

However, the proposals from Mr O’Gorman led to some “heated” exchanges at Cabinet on Tuesday, with the Tánaiste accusing the Integration Minister of pushing responsibilities onto Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien.

Senior sources said that Mr O’Gorman appeared to be “visibly agitated” following an “intense pushback” from both Mr Martin and Mr O’Brien.

Ministers voiced concerns particularly that if Ukrainians did not receive alternative accommodation after the 90 days are up, it would only add to the existing high levels of homelessness.

Mr Varadkar added that no decisions have been made on the plan yet, but that work is currently ongoing.

The Taoiseach also downplayed the exchanges at Cabinet over the three-month proposal, saying that “rows within Government are much exaggerated”.

Meanwhile, Green Party junior minister Joe O’Brien said there are currently no “solid proposals” for the Government to put a time limit on Ukrainian refugee accommodation.

 Green Party junior minister Joe O’Brien.
Green Party junior minister Joe O’Brien.

Speaking to reporters in Dublin on Wednesday, Mr O’Brien said that while no final plan is available, the Government needs to move towards a more “medium-term” solution for accommodating Ukrainian refugees arriving in Ireland.

“There’s no sight of the conflict ending anytime soon and we have to measure our response to fit that as well,” Mr O’Brien said, adding that over the summer, the Government almost ran out of available accommodation.

“There’s no solid proposal yet, but there’s been a number of conversations about re-orientating our response to a more medium-term one that is sustainable and that fits the temporary protection directive that we’ve committed to and we stay committed to 100%.

“That needs to be looked at and needs to be discussed seriously as well.”

One senior Green Party source said that the measure is necessary to act as a deterrent to new Ukrainian refugees entering the country, citing the high figures arriving into the State.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Today with Colm Ó Mongáin, Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan backed her party colleague and said that there is a need for a “whole of Government approach” to the crisis.

In particular, Ms Hourigan criticised the Department of Housing for being “effectively absent” throughout the refugee crisis over the last two years.

“There’s been a recognition that there has to be a whole of Government approach to this and that’s not what we’re seeing,” Ms Hourigan said.

“I think if we recognise that emergency provision should be just that, temporary and emergency provision and that people to be able to build a life here in the long term, then we need the Department of Housing and the Department of Social Welfare to step up here and actually provide care for people.”