Stop ‘punching down’ and ‘scapegoating’ vulnerable asylum seekers, Government told by NGOs

Call made in joint statement by 30 civil organisations, including Irish Refugee Council and Focus Ireland

The treatment of asylum seekers by the Government is becoming one of “punching down” and “scapegoating vulnerable people” which is creating a vacuum being filled with misinformation, organisations working with the homeless and refugees have said.

The comments came at a press conference on Wednesday at which a statement from over 30 civil organisations expressing “deep concern” at the “situation of all people experiencing homelessness ... including international protection applicants in this horrific position” was published.

The organisations, including Irish Refugee Council (IRC), Focus Ireland, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and medical charity Safetynet, are particularly concerned by the plight of almost 2,000 male asylum seekers who remain without shelter.

“We reject the politicising of this issue and the scapegoating of vulnerable people seeking protection. Continued failure by this Government to effectively address this issue, while threatening arrest for those sleeping in tents, damages the health of people forced into homelessness, threatens the credibility of Ireland’s international protection process, and gives fuel to the far right,” they said.

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Since December 4th the International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) has stopped proving accommodation to single male asylum seekers on presentation at the International Protection Office (IPO). The measure has led to several large encampments in Dublin city centre, around the IPO and the nearby Grand Canal. These have been sporadically cleared in multi-agency operations. As of Tuesday there remained up to 100 tents at the canal.

“Homelessness is always unsafe, detrimental to physical and mental health, and can lead to prolonged negative health outcomes,” says the joint statement. “We believe and insist that Ireland can and must do better to find solutions to this crisis.”

Nick Henderson, chief executive of the IRC, said there was “a real risk that the Government’s failure to adequately deal with” the housing and health crises, or to plan sufficiently for increased immigration, was leading people to blame “the other”.

A “vacuum” was being created into which misinformation could flow he added. Government language around this was “at the very least ... careless”, he said.

Referencing regular Government announcements in recent months on toughening conditions for refugees and asylum seekers, he said, “statements have consequences” for how the public viewed asylum seekers.

These included reducing accommodation for Ukrainians to 90 days; reducing their welfare supports; expanding the list of “safe countries”; means-testing for asylum seekers; ramping up immigration checks by Gardaí at the border; and threatening men sheltering by the canal with prosecution.

“The Government have to be aware of the consequences of their language ... Don’t punch down. Don’t punch at all. Show leadership on this issue, communicate clearly using facts,” said Mr Henderson.

Olivia Headon, a student and volunteer who has worked with others supporting homeless asylum seekers for several months, providing food, water, tarpaulins to protect tents from elements, sleeping mats and clothing said men were living without sanitation or security, while many had serious health issues and faced abuse, violence and harassment.

“Last night we were talking to some of the men and group of ten or fifteen young people cycled past ... They threw vegetables, potatoes, they hit people on different parts of the body, the broke a hole in a table. That is one small incident.

“If I spend a few hours there I will experience ten or more racial slurs by passersby, people on a construction site, people coming purposely to do it. People are urinating on tents, throwing objects like eggs ... It is not safe.”

Among the nine calls the groups are making are that safe accommodation be provided to any person sleeping rough; that the weekly allowance of €113.80 to homeless asylum seekers be increased; and that an audit of all state-owned property, including in more affluent areas, be conducted with a view to providing sufficient emergency accommodation.

In response Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that she believed government has been “doing everything we possibly can to provide support for those who are seeking asylum.”

“We have throughout all of this tried to ensure that we provide a roof over people’s heads; that we give people an answer for their seeking protection as quickly as possible; that they can move on with their lives; that they can be part of the community. But, also, we have to be really clear that we have a system, that where a person is not entitled to protection, that they’re given that negative decision too and that they’re removed from the country,” she said.

“So we’re trying to make sure we have a system that’s firm but fair, while at the same time, I think we all have to acknowledge that the numbers that we’ve seen are far greater than we’ve ever seen before. And we’re doing everything that we can to respond to them.”

Minister McEntee said that there were “many legal pathways for people to come to this country to work”.

“We already have half a million people who are working here who live here who were not born here, so there are legal pathways for people to come here,” she added.

“We have to ensure that our international protection system is not used as a backdoor to those who are seeking perhaps a better life but who are not using the right channels.”

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