A race against time is under way to get Ireland ready to open its doors to refugees as warnings mount that preparations need to begin immediately.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald both put a figure of 1,800 on the number of people Ireland is likely to be asked to take in when the European Commission unveils an action plan to deal with the crisis next week.
That is three times the 600 Ireland committed to accepting between now and the end of 2016 when initial estimates of the numbers in need were discussed by the EU earlier this year.
Then it was thought that 40,000 people needed relocation from overwhelmed countries such as Greece and Italy after risking death to cross the Mediterranean — a figure since put at 120,000.
However, senior figures, including President Michael D Higgins, stressed yesterday that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had freshly calculated the number to be 200,000.
President Michael D Higgins
“If that [EU] figure is revised in terms of the UNHCR figure of 200,000, that obviously doubles the different indications that countries have been making,” he said.
Sophie Magennis, head of the UNHCR’s Irish office, said there was an urgent need to prepare for the new arrivals, most of whom will come without predetermined refugee status.
To be eligible for services and supports here, they will have to be put through the normal refugee applications process, which is already dealing with a surge in activity this year.
“The most important thing is they get a quick decision — within a matter of weeks if possible — because these are people who are in need of protection,” said Ms Magennis. “That will require resourcing at the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner so we need to put in place right now extra resourcing. Number two, we need to be looking already at accommodation both for when they come in at determination stage and afterwards.”
The Department of Justice said: “The department is currently examining the resource implications of the additional numbers claiming asylum and the requirements to deal with the relocation measures.”
Details of where and how the new arrivals will be cared for are scarce. The Department of Justice will take the lead on the arrangements but junior health minister Kathleen Lynch said: “All departments in Government will have to be involved in this.”
As the Government prepared for the task ahead, President Higgins said the approach at EU and UN level so far had been marked by failure.
In a strongly worded plea for help for the refugees, he told RTÉ he believed the Irish public wanted more to be done and would stand up to the xenophobia being stirred up in other communities across Europe. “The Irish people recognise a humanitarian crisis when there is one and it is staring them in the face,” he said.
President Higgins criticised world leaders for not doing enough to end the war in Syria, hitting out particularly at the UN Security Council. He said he was shocked to learn countries had contributed only a third of the aid money requested by the UN for Syria, while the World Food Programme had been forced to halve food rations to refugee camps because of a shortfall in funding.
Refugees in Budapest
Dramatic evidence of the failures at official level emerged yesterday as hundreds of refugees, barred by riot police in Hungary from leaving the country on trains, began the 170km journey to the Austrian border on foot.
Supported only by voluntary groups attempting to provide food and water, they have no guarantee of a better reception if and when the reach the border.
Late last night, the Hungarian government said it would offer to bus to the Austrian border the thousands of refugees camped at Budapest’s main train station as well as those walking to the border.
Sue Conlan of the Irish Refugee Council said it was a “horrifying” situation.
The Irish Refugee Council and Uplift.ie are among Irish charities and campaign groups reporting an overwhelming response from the public to the crisis, including offers of money, tents, clothes, and rooms for refugees.
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