Refugee crisis: EU budget talks ‘will not dictate response’

Iraqi refugee Umm Fadil, tends to her crying son Ahmad, 41 days, while resting by a railway track after they crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary. AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen

Fears that the cost of taking in refugees will leave Ireland in breach of strict EU rules governing public spending have been downplayed.

Junior ‘finance minister Simon Harris said that while seeking relaxation of the EU’s budget rules because of the extraordinary circumstances, Ireland’s response to the refugee crisis would not be influenced by the outcome.

“This is not a major issue of concern for Ireland — we will see how it develops. The humanitarian aspect should be above any economic consideration,” he said.

Ireland is one of four countries that want the European Commission to exclude the cost of taking refugees from national budget deficits.

Ireland must reduce its deficit to below 3% of GDP this year and there are concerns that if spending on refugees isn’t discounted, cuts will have to be implemented in other areas in order to meet the target.

Italy and Austria, which have been taking large numbers of refugees, and Luxembourg have also asked for the cost to be excluded from their budget deficits.

The junior minister’s relaxed attitude to the issue contrasted with that of Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin who raised it earlier this week, saying the costs of Ireland’s response must not be allowed compromise the Government’s ability to meet other pressing demands in health, education, social protection and infrastructure.

Mr Harris was attending a finance ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg where the European Investment Bank told him and the other EU ministers it will provide cheap loans for prefab housing, health care, educational facilities and ICT for processing refugees as well as micro loans to help them set up businesses later.

The cost to Ireland of responding to the refugee crisis has yet to be calculated. Sheltering and feeding people in direct provision style accommodation here costs around €12,000 per person per year which would come to €48m for all 4,000 people Ireland is to take in.

Half that cost will be met by the EU but there will be significant additional costs for healthcare, education and other supports, for beefing up the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner to process the 3,500 people who will come without predetermined refugee status and for moving people out of direct provision into the community.

The Irish Red Cross, which has been asked by the Government to co-ordinate the public response to the crisis, yesterday began taking details of offers of accommodation and other supports and services. Its dedicated address is migrationcrisis@redcross.ie.

A spokesman said around 20 firm offers of accommodation were received directly by the organisation. But thousands more have flooded in over recent days and weeks to other charities and voluntary groups, and also to the Department of Justice’s Reception and Integration Agency, which last month sought expressions of interest from owners of hotels, guesthouses and other premises interested in providing accommodation on a contract basis.

Paul Anderson of the Irish Red Cross said talks about how to best collate all the offers would begin when the first meeting of the Government’s interdepartmental taskforce on the refugee plan takes place next Tuesday.

That meeting will follow a meeting in Brussels on Monday when EU justice and home affairs ministers will meet to formally agree a plan to redistribute some 160,000 mainly Syrian people seeking sanctuary in Europe.

Aid agencies and rights groups have said the meeting should not just be about addressing the immediate crisis but also about finding long-term solutions to the war in Syria.

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