Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered one of the largest and fastest refugee movements that Europe has witnessed since the end of World War II. By 22 March, only seven days into the war, 874,000 people were estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries.
Ireland, a nation of just five million people that in Europe is geographically the furthest away from Ukraine, has welcomed refugees with open arms and lifted restrictions on Ukrainians arriving in the countryside shortly after Russia invaded.
As the Government here seeks to accommodate those fleeing war the figures have shown a rise in homelessness in this country. Of the 9,825 people homeless in March, 2,811 were children – a 30% increase in child homelessness. New data shows that 115 homeless people died in Dublin last year.
Crisis at Home
The Ukrainian humanitarian crisis comes on top of a pre-existing housing emergency in Ireland. Fears are growing that the State is struggling to find long-term accommodation for those fleeing the Russian invasion. A poll conducted by the Sunday Times showed that 60% of the Irish public want a cap to be put on the number of refugees coming into Ireland.
These statistics should not be viewed as hostility towards refugees but rather as an indication of a genuine concern based on logical considerations that the country will not be able to afford what it has undertaken. However, after the Government identified 100 unused properties including former convents and hospitals that could house up to 4,000 Ukrainians within weeks, questions were raised as to why this could not have been done for Irish citizens.
When homelessness was first described as a ‘crisis’ in recent years there were around 2, 000 single people homeless. In March there were over 5,000 single people in emergency accommodation. Why are those in power not responding in a more vigorous manner as they did during the Covid crisis?
Now there are some who fear that the Government will make use of a cynical narrative in which the Ukrainian refugee crisis will be a significant factor in not meeting Housing For All targets. They are still failing to get local authorities back building new social housing. While communities and families are doing all they can to step up and support families fleeing war in Ukraine we keep in mind that too many in the country are suffering from not having a secure home of their own. Both groups need our support and kindness as well as greater efforts by those in power to tackle the root causes instead of just binding up the wounds.
A Welcome in Cahersiveen
There was a very uplifting story on the radio last week about a primary school in Kerry that has welcomed fifty Ukrainian children. The principal Treasa Ní Chróinín has said it is a challenge but the pupils in Scoil Saidhbhín have completely taken a back seat in order to make their new friends welcome. When they first heard the news, they got out paints for window pictures to welcome the newcomers.
Some Ukrainian and Irish children were also interviewed but one of those who fled the war said he did not feel able to talk about it at present. You could only imagine all that he had been through and the resulting trauma. Another little girl, accompanied by her mother, stays back after the others have gone home to practise the piano, and the caretaker spoke about his enjoyment of the music as he did his evening rounds.
The Ukrainian children range in age from four to thirteen years of age, and some speak no English, but we heard their Irish friends trying out a few phrases in Ukrainian. Everyone now apparently has Google translate on their phones.
The Irish pupils who were interviewed knew about why their new friends had to leave their homes. You had a real sense of them participating in history rather than just viewing events from afar. Exposure to a different culture at such young ages should help to foster acceptance of others and a willingness to help our fellow human beings. These are the ideals we should all aim for in our dealings with people, loving our neighbours, whether it is those who are always with us or those we meet for the first time.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan