Ireland’s housing crisis leaves refugees and homeless in desperate plight

Thousands of Irish tenants face the prospect of eviction from next month, compounding a housing crisis that has spread to refugees and asylum seekers looking for shelter in the country.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, whose government is ending a winter ban on evictions from April 1, has said Ireland is 250,000 homes short of the number it needs.

The stark admission comes as the nation of 5.1mn people struggles with record homelessness and the challenge of providing shelter to Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers from other countries.

“Now we’re accommodating 58,000 Ukrainians and 20,000 people in international protection. There is real pressure on housing,” said Roderic O’Gorman, integration minister.

Fringe far-right groups have seized on the housing crisis and organised rare protests, some with banners proclaiming “Ireland is full”. Racist attacks on migrants have also marred Ireland’s socially progressive image.

With the housing crisis expected to worsen this year, experts and tenants say a wave of evictions would put pressure on emergency services that are already at breaking point. A record 11,754 people — nearly a third of whom are children — needed emergency shelter at the end of January, according to the latest official data.

Sinn Féin, the opposition group that is Ireland’s most popular party and a campaigner on housing, says 10,000 people might be evicted this year. It has urged the government to “show some compassion” and reinstate the eviction ban.

The government said that more than half of eviction notices issued last autumn fell due during the period of the ban, meaning most of those tenants would be safe. But it admitted that more than 2,000 people warned last year could still be told to leave their homes.

The ban was imposed last October to prevent landlords from evicting tenants during the cost-of-living crisis. Ministers had foreseen the eviction ban as only a temporary measure and said ending it would protect landlords who, for example, faced rent arrears or wanted to sell their property.

Compounding the housing issue, some hoteliers are considering taking back rooms contracted to the government to house Ukrainian refugees.

Such contracts can be lucrative during the winter lull, but some hotels, especially in urban areas, can earn more in the peak season that begins next month by reverting to tourism, experts say.

In January, Ireland went as far as to appeal on social media for refugees not to come if they were in a safe place, saying it had run out of room for them. About 2,000 Ukrainian fewer refugees arrived that month than in December, one of the highest drops in the EU.

The situation is worse for non-Ukrainian asylum seekers. Integration minister O’Gorman has had to appeal to colleagues to find sports, arts, conference and student leisure centres as well as any other halls “where camp beds, mattresses, sleeping bags” could be put out to meet unprecedented demand.

Dozens of applicants have recently been rehoused in tents despite the government’s earlier pledges to find appropriate accommodation for everyone.

The number of asylum seekers in government accommodation has soared by 150 per cent to almost 20,000 in early February, from 8,000 at the start of 2022. Last year, Ireland received a record 13,651 applications for asylum; the previous high was 11,634 in 2002. In January, applications for international protection — including large numbers of people from Algeria, Nigeria, Georgia, Somalia and Zimbabwe — leapt 234 per cent on the same period last year.

The rising numbers triggered social tensions in a country not known for far-right extremism and where one in eight people was born abroad.

Men with dogs, sticks and a baseball bat attacked a migrant camp in Dublin at the end of January. At one recent demonstration in February, protesters were encouraged to “burn out” refugees “in the name of our culture”.

An Ireland Thinks poll last month found that 56 per cent of respondents thought the country had accepted too many refugees.

In a show of support last month, some 50,000 people held an anti-racism rally in the Irish capital. Varadkar said that “refugees are welcome” and the country’s president, Michael D Higgins, condemned those “sowing hate and building fear” around people in need of protection.

John Lannon, chief executive of Doras, an independent non-profit group promoting migrants’ rights, said the asylum accommodation system seemed “hopelessly broken”.

In a country shaped by emigration to escape famine and economic hardship, “more can be done . . . to do what has been done for Irish people around the world: to provide a new start for them”, he said.

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