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Ireland's asylum seeker crisis: Services at breaking point

Tents along Dublin`'s Grand Canal.
Tents along Dublin`'s Grand Canal. Copyright IERTE/EBU
Copyright IERTE/EBU
By Eleanor Butler
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An understaffed healthcare system and housing shortages are problems that have plagued Ireland for years. As the country now grapples with an influx of asylum seekers, how does the government plan to support them - and its residents?

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Earlier this month, Dublin made international headlines. In the heart of the city, an encampment had sprung up along Mount Street, just outside the state's International Protection Office. For several months, the tents had been occupied by asylum seekers. Nigerians, Afghanis, Pakistanis - among others - had illegally pitched up, sleeping rough due to a lack of alternative accommodation.

Just after dawn on the 1 May, the police moved in to dismantle the encampment. According to the government, almost 300 unaccompanied men were moved from Mount Street to Citywest and Crooksling - also in County Dublin. Still in tented accommodation, they continued to await the results of their asylum claims. This was the third time a Mount Street eviction had taken place. Similar scenes have played out around Dublin's Grand Canal.

Shift in opinion on immigration in Ireland

According to a study released by The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in March, attitudes towards immigration remain largely positive in Ireland. The data showed that the public has become more welcoming since 2014, although there has been a shift in opinion since then.

For EU immigration, positive feelings decreased from a high of 92% in August 2020 to 85% in June 2023. Regarding non-EU immigrants, attitudes remained relatively stable during the same period, but fell by 6 percentage points between June and November 2023, settling at around 65%.

Added to this, immigration has been climbing up the political agenda. In November 2023, 14% of ESRI respondents said that immigration was one of the top two most important issues facing Ireland. That’s up from 3% in July 2022.

Why the rising frustrations?

When examining the causes behind rising frustrations, many experts firstly point to a significant jump in arrivals. 5,163 people applied for international protection in Ireland during the first three months of this year, an annual rise of 72%. This data continues a longer-running trend, with whole year applications rising five fold between 2019 and 2023. According to the Department of Justice, last year’s applications primarily concerned migrants from Nigeria, followed by individuals from Algeria and Afghanistan.

Arrival numbers are even more dramatic when factoring in those fleeing the war in Ukraine, who are welcomed via a different process. Between 4 March 2022 and 4 February 2024, 104,870 Ukrainian refugees arrived in Ireland under the Temporary Protection Directive, according to Ireland's Central Statistics Office (CSO).

Camilla Devitt, an assistant professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin specialising in labour migration, told Euronews that frustration over asylum seekers is partially driven by a lack of resources. "Inadequate investment in public services and a reliance on the private provision of those services is an important root cause of the increase in public concern regarding asylum-seeking in Ireland," she said.

To be specific, housing provision is one of the key issues marking Ireland, and it has been the case for many years. During the Celtic Tiger boom period, Ireland saw a rapid expansion of private construction as banks were eager to grant huge loans. After the crash, the state failed to invest in social housing, forcing more people into the rental sector. The lack of supply is further squeezed by complex planning regulations and the cost of land and labour, meaning that home ownership - or even finding an affordable rental property - has become a pipe dream for many.

According to the most recent figures from the CSO, 13,866 adults and children were in homeless accommodation in Ireland this March - a yearly jump of 16%. Against this backdrop, a government housing report leaked by broadcaster RTÉ earlier this month also found that Ireland was lacking up to 256,000 homes. In this climate, some question whether the country is really well-placed to open its arms to migrants.

Stretched housing and healthcare systems on the brink

Not only is Ireland struggling with housing shortages, but its healthcare system is creaking under capacity constraints. "There have been some dramatic improvements in the health service," said Gary Murphy, professor of politics at Dublin City University, "but you’ll often hear of GPs who can’t take on any new patients, along with lengthy waiting times for accident and emergency departments".

In a report published by the OECD last year, 2.6 % of the Irish population reported experiencing unmet medical needs, above the EU average. Long waiting lists were the main reason people failed to receive adequate care, and those in the lowest income bracket were most likely to be affected. Despite increased investment in the sector, experts claim that shortcomings are ultimately linked to increasing demand, resulting in a shortage of beds and doctors.

In light of these recruitment difficulties, continued Gary Murphy, we can also consider arguments surrounding immigration in another light. Although adding to the population could further burden facilities, "there are significant numbers of immigrants in the health service who are actually propping it up," he explained. "You can't go to any hospital in Ireland without being treated, and treated very well, by those who are not born in Ireland."

Out of the 29,573 physicians who were licensed to practice in Ireland in 2023, 43.4% obtained their first medical qualification outside of the country. In descending order, Pakistan, Sudan and the United Kingdom were the top three countries for these foreign trained physicians. Wider analysis from Goodbody Stockbrokers shows that non-Irish nationals now make up a fifth of Ireland's workforce.

We need to see courageous leadership that prioritises accessible, affordable housing for people of all demographics.
Fiona Hurley
Nasc CEO

Despite the economic arguments for migration, the conversation around Ireland's borders has nonetheless become particularly thorny in recent months. This is partially driven by the rise of extremist actors, some of whom are now campaigning for political office on an anti-immigration platform. "Get them out" or "Ireland is full" have become rallying cries for the far-right. In some cases, this means legitimate concerns about the government's migration policy have become conflated with racial hostility.

"In the context of our worsening housing and cost of living crisis, anti-immigrant actors have weaponised these issues against disadvantaged Irish communities and promoted dangerous misinformation," said Fiona Hurley, CEO of Nasc, the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre. While this trend has been seen in other European nations, the rapid rise of a far-right, anti-immigrant politician is still uncharted territory for Ireland. Some explain this by pointing to Ireland's own history of migration, as well as the lack of a clear left/right distinction, as seen in other political systems.

Pending elections and rise of the far-right

On 7 June, when the Irish vote in local and European elections, commentators are sceptical that far-right parties will amass a significant proportion of votes. However, when it comes to immigration, this doesn't mean these voices won't influence the mainstream.

"We need to see courageous leadership that prioritises accessible, affordable housing for people of all demographics," said Fiona Hurley, as well as a “promotion of social integration through targeted funding”. While the government works to tackle the current asylum crisis, she argues that humane messaging must be a priority when discussing all marginalised communities, local or migrant.

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Euronews was in contact with Ireland's Department of the Taoiseach and Department of Justice in connection with this article. Neither were able to provide a comment.

Video editor • Ines Trindade Pereira

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