Housing crisis ‘mustn’t stop us helping refugees’, says former housing minister 

Gevgelija, Macedonia – December 23, 2015: Refugees arriving at the refugee camp of Vinojug in Gevgelija (Macedonia) after having crossed the border with Greece at Eidomeni.

By Paul Caffrey 

Ireland must continue to provide homes to vulnerable refugees in 2020 even though our own housing crisis makes the issue “specifically pointed”, a Fine Gael Senator has said. 

Former housing minister Paudie Coffey spoke exclusively to TheCity.ie after this website established that his ruling party has been falling short of its stated targets for refugee resettlement since 2015.  

Stressing that he was expressing his personal views and not those of his party, the ex-TD said Ireland must stay committed to helping those forced out of their own countries – despite us facing a “housing challenge” on the domestic front.

Former Housing Minister for Fine Gael, Paudie Coffey

Locals in Waterford, where the Senator is based, have played a crucial role in welcoming refugees to Ireland.

This was despite initial controversy in the county about turning a popular three-star Dungarvan seaside hotel into a refugee centre.  

Senator Coffey said there had been “a lot of unrest” in his political backyard at first in 2015 – but that the scheme ultimately became a success in terms of integrating the new families into the community.  

In 2015, the FG-led government pledged to take 4,000 programme refugees fleeing war-torn countries like Syria by the end of 2017. 

But even now, we’re still well short of that quota – having resettled only 3,206 such refugees here since 2015, according to figures supplied to TheCity.ie by a Fine Gael spokesperson. 

And Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has vowed to home 2,900 more in Ireland between now and 2023. 

International development policy features prominently in Fine Gael’s election manifesto that promises to “continue to play our part in the EU’s response to meeting the needs of asylum seekers and refugees”. 

Welcoming 50 Syrian refugees to Mosney, Co. Meath – once Ireland’s most popular holiday camp – at the end of last year, Minister Flanagan said it was “only right and proper that Ireland plays its part and offers a helping hand to those less fortunate than ourselves.”

Ireland is currently the only EU country in the running for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations security council in 2021. 

Certainly, a solid track record on the international assistance front would be a prerequisite for impressing the New York-based bigwigs.   

In Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, over 100 refugees have been housed in the picturesque Clonea Strand Hotel.

Housing crisis. Credit: Unsplash

But the original implementation of that plan wasn’t all plain sailing.  

In late 2015, there was a spat in Senator Coffey’s constituency when plans to move 90 Syrian refugees into the beachside hotel were announced. 

Like Mosney once had been, it was a popular destination for tourists and Irish families on staycations alike. 

At that time, several local business people, county councillors and locals in Dungarvan reportedly complained that the tourist spot was “inappropriate” for refugees.  

They claimed that placing the Syrian families in the Clonea Strand would have a negative impact on local business. 

One man reportedly told an emergency meeting that he did not “like them being housed on my doorstep”.  

But ultimately, the scheme became a success and a further 40 refugees were homed in Waterford in 2016. 

Then in 2017, Waterford locals set up a programme of events to help the Syrian families feel a “sense of inclusiveness” in Ireland. 

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s General Election, Senator Coffey said he fully supports the continuation of the Irish Refugee Resettlement Programme during 2020 and beyond. 

Previously, he served as junior minister in charge of housing under Enda Kenny’s leadership.

The senior Fine Gael politician told TheCity.ie last night:

“I think if Ireland considers itself a modern, developed society, then we do have a responsibility to care for those that do seek refuge.”  

Recalling some strong opposition to the resettlement scheme being rolled out in his constituency five years ago, he said: “I wasn’t against it.  

“There was a lot of unrest.  

“I think we should continue the programme.  

“It is specifically pointed because we have a housing challenge.  

“But we have a responsibility to assist those seeking refuge. 

“I understand they have a good quality of life in Dungarvan.

“And from my experience, they’ve been integrating into the community quite a bit.”

Indeed, ordinary Waterford locals set up the Déise Refugee Response Group in 2017 saying the refugee families deserved “at the very least, our compassion, patience and kindness – but most of all action to help.” 

Their group collects food, toys and supplies – including clothes, dolls, colouring pencils and soccer boots – for the Syrian families.   

Over the past decade, Ireland’s also welcomed Somalian, Sudanese and Rohingya refugees. 

However, the Childrens’ Rights Alliance (CRA) last year expressed concerns about how good a life Ireland can offer refugee families – particularly the children. 

About 1,200 of the first 2,500 refugees admitted to Ireland following the 2015 pledge were children.  

In a report last September, the CRA pointed to language barriers in education and recreational activities as well as mental health issues among the youngsters. 

The CRA also highlighted instability in accommodation and a lack of interpreters available to help refugee children. 

Meanwhile, if returned to Government this weekend, FG’s also vowing to meet the “huge challenge” of increasing the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) programme to 0.7% of gross national income by 2030. 

The party’s manifesto says: “This will be a huge challenge – a trebling of our current commitment. It will require cross-party commitment across the Dáil.” 

EXPLAINER BREAK-OUT PANEL: ASYLUM SEEKERS, MIGRANTS & REFUGEES 

Credit: Unsplash.

There are important distinctions to be drawn between asylum seekers, migrants and refugees – but these terms often get mixed up in the course of public debate on what’s a complex topic. 

An asylum seeker is someone seeking refugee status – but whose application has not yet been approved. In the meantime, as long as they’ve made an application for asylum to the country they’ve landed up in – usually on the basis they were forced to flee their home country – they are entitled to remain in the destination country while their request is being processed. If it’s ultimately approved, then they have permission to remain. If it’s rejected, then they’ll be deported. Though some, who fail to qualify as refugees, are granted subsidiary protection to remain.  

Migrants are never fleeing persecution; instead they choose to move country – often for economic reasons.  

Those defined as refugees have been recognised as such under the UN’s 1951 convention, while programme refugees have their claims formally assessed in refugee camps overseas – and are invited to the destination country under a resettlement programme.  

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