By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
Ministers evoked the history of fleeing Ireland in search of a better life abroad as TDs gave statements to the Dail on housing asylum seekers across the country.
They also condemned far-right actors who have spread misinformation about migrants and anti-immigration protests that have sought to block migrants from entering certain areas.
More than 85,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Ireland after fleeing the Russian invasion of their country since its outbreak last February, with a further 15,000 arriving last year seeking asylum.
The State is now offering accommodation to more than 85,000 people amid a severe housing shortage that the government has said can only be addressed by boosting supply after years of underinvestment.
The government has committed to refurbishing buildings, encouraged people to “pledge” a home for Ukrainian refugees for a period of time, and to fund rapid-build accommodation units in the hope of housing migrants arriving in Ireland.
Speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday, Minister for Equality Roderic O’Gorman – charged with housing and integrating Ukrainians and asylum seekers – said that the people who are “warmly embracing” those who have fled from conflict or persecution “are the true mark of Irishness”.
Addressing communication concerns, he said he had engaged with locals and communities to give information and dispel misinformation, but added “we don’t always get to do the level of engagement”.
He said that masked men who film and intimidate asylum seekers “are not concerned locals”, but members of the far right “peddling lies” to further their own agenda.
He added: “The vilification of men in particular who come here seeking international protection, some of these men who have been tortured, exploited and come here seeking refuge, being denigrated as something other, something to be feared.”
He said that international protection means fairly and humanely examining a claim for asylum, and should not “vilify” those who have their claims rejected.
He added: “Our deep history of immigration means we have an instinctive understanding of the plight of those seeking to make a better life elsewhere.
“There’s not one Irish person who hasn’t had a family member, a male family member, who’s gone abroad seeking a better life as an economic migrant, and we view them as our families, as proud relatives living elsewhere.”
Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said that in Ireland’s “quite recent history”, people have had to flee its shores and “weren’t always given the welcome that they should have” but went on to play “a very important role in their new countries”.
He said that it was important that the message “from a very dangerous fringe on the right wing aren’t allowed to take hold” and suggested that a flux of people seeking asylum in Ireland would now become “the new norm”.
He added: “All of us realise that the reality that we live in right now – which is mass migration – is a reality that the developed world and Europe and Ireland are going to have to live with for many, many years to come even post the conflict in Ukraine.
“We look at climate change, we look at all the conflicts right across the world, countries like ours, people see as a safe and secure place where they can rear their families, and so I think we have to be more flexible into the future about providing additional accommodation for the long term.”
As part of the refurbishment programme, he said that currently there are 59 different projects at various stages of progression that will provide just short of 3,000 additional bed spaces when the work is complete.
Justice Minister Simon Harris criticised “bad actors” who he said travel from community to community who seek to “hijack” the Irish tricolour for their own needs.
“They want to express these concerns for their own ends, they use divisive rhetoric, they use misleading information, and they target those people that have come to Ireland to seek protection,” he said.
“In our DNA, we know what it is like to have to leave your homeland and go and seek refuge somewhere else.
“People who drape the tricolour around them while blocking the entry and exit of people from their temporary homes, from their place of shelter, do not speak for our country, they do not speak for this people’s house, the Dail.”
He said that Government was working “tirelessly” to ensure that asylum seekers who have fled to Ireland and have been left without State-provided accommodation will be housed.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald noted it said something about political life in Ireland that the vast majority of politicians who put themselves forward for election have criticised the actions of the far right “because these are the values of the Irish people”.
“Barricades are wrong, blockades at the accommodation of anyone, but particularly vulnerable people is wrong, wrong, and wrong again,” she said.
Sinn Fein TD John Brady accused the government of having a hand in creating “the current mess”, criticising Ireland’s asylum system as “unworkable” and “unfair” to applicants.
“It is also a fact that it is less well off communities which have had to accommodate the vast majority of refugees, and from the outset the government has failed to deliver on its commitments and responsibilities – at best it has, at times, been reacting to events rather than delivering solutions up front,” he said.
Labour TD Duncan Smith said that the statements from three ministers was an example of the “coordinated, coherent response from government” that the opposition had been calling for.
He said that he had concerns about “a small minority” of public representatives who he said he “would not trust” with certain information in relation to where new arrivals were going to be accommodated.
“There has been instances where representatives have come and said things at public meetings, or have dropped leaflets and that, quite simply, is something that we cannot stand for,” he said.