Today (24th February 2023) marks one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As of 13th February 2023, the UNHCR has recorded 8,072,198 refugees from Ukraine across Europe, and as of 23rd January 2023, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimated that there were a further 5.4 million internally displaced persons across Ukraine.
According to the Central Statistics Office, some 67,448 people had arrived to Ireland from Ukraine by the week ending 11th December 2022. This number is based on the number of PPS Numbers issued to people arriving to Ireland from Ukraine under the Temporary Protection Directive. The Temporary Protection Directive, while having welcome aspects regarding service provision and accessibility, essentially created a two-tier system for refugees and asylum seekers, based on their country of origin.
Early support for Ukraine during the emergency was significant at both Irish and international levels. In fact, Ireland’s initial response to the Ukrainian crisis was hailed as almost exemplary, having taken what is arguably the first “human rights first” approach to international protection in our history. However, this response is not without its flaws, many of which are highlighted below.
But first, we might take a moment to understand why we took the approach that we did. Simply put, because we were made to.
Under the EU Directive, Temporary Protection is afforded to Ukrainian nationals and their family members and anyone provided with international protection in Ukraine prior to the 24th February 2022. For its part, Ireland also granted Temporary Protection to people who had been residing in Ukraine before 24 February 2022 with a permanent Ukrainian residence permit, who could not safely return to their country of origin.
This immediately raises two flags:
- The question of what happens to undocumented migrants residing in Ukraine? Article 7(1) of the EU Directive does allow Member States to extend protection to other categories of persons fleeing Ukraine in the same way as Ukrainian nationals.
- Why did it take so long for the EU to invoke this Directive? The Temporary Protection Directive, as it is called, was adopted in 2001 in response to conflict in Kosovo but only triggered for the first time by the Council in response to the Ukrainian situation in 2022. In recent years, even though scale was the distinguishing feature of the 2015 EU Refugee Crisis and that the asylum systems of countries at the borders of Europe were abjectly failing to cope, the EU still only had recourse to alternative emergency response mechanisms, that is, relocation and resettlement schemes. It took 21 years for EU Member States to respond to forced displacement with appropriate urgency.
And that’s before we discuss the form of our response.
Within the Irish response is a heavy reliance on the community and voluntary sector to provide supports such as coordination of accommodation, teaching English, supporting family placements and so on. It was the community and voluntary sector who amplified safeguarding concerns relating to unaccompanied minors, leading Government to put the relevant protections in place early on in the crisis. The sector continues to highlight these concerns in respect of accommodation placements that are arranged privately between a Ukrainian family and an Irish host, in recognition of the imbalance of power within that relationship.
The crisis was also seen as a temporary problem, with initial reports of temporary housing being needed for “up to three years” and that, once the war is over, Ukrainian migrants will return to their own country and rebuild their lives. However, there is no clarity as to what pathways to protection will be available if the key driver of displacement endures beyond this point. And this ‘temporary thinking’ resulted in the loss of valuable time in planning a more sustainable and long-term response.
Beyond the immediate challenges faced by Ukrainian people forcibly displaced, the wider geopolitical impacts of the crisis – the dependency on Russian fossil fuel production and resultant risks, together with risks to food security – will be felt globally into the future, and disproportionately impact those who can least absorb them.
In an Irish context, this has resulted in a deepening inequality. Since the 2008 financial crash there has been a dawning and widespread recognition that our economy and society, both here in Ireland and more broadly, must change to become more equal, more just, and more sustainable if we are to meet the needs of the people and the challenges of the future.
This requires some fundamental transitions in how we organise ourselves: an energy transition, to rapidly remove our dependence on fossil fuels and eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions; a political-economic transition, to use more diverse and effective mechanisms to organise consumption, production and exchange; and a social transition, to create a society which can and will meet the needs of all the people, including those who come here fleeing war, oppression and climate catastrophe.
These are extremely challenging transitions with generational impacts.
While some limited supports are still being provided to displaced persons fleeing Ukraine, the Irish response to increasing numbers of Ukrainian migrants has been to pare back those supports, given the limited resources available. Resources Government was acutely aware were under pressure prior to the 24th February 2022. This is a failure of Government policy on several fronts: a failure to meet the basic needs of the people of Ireland, a failure to properly plan for incoming migrants in advance of their arrival, a failure to provide adequate, ongoing, supports once they arrived.
The recent policy decision not to provide accommodation supports to people without children, people who are fleeing a war, is unacceptable.
We have seen concerning increases in anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent weeks. Factions seeking to spread this rhetoric are using the legitimate concerns of communities experiencing multiple pre-existing crises of housing, welfare, and safety and security, to spread fear and incite hatred against immigrants.
The housing crisis pre-dates the war in Ukraine. Poverty, particularly in disadvantaged areas and among marginalised groups, pre-dates the war in Ukraine. In fact, the real blame for these crises can be traced back to a decade of austerity following the Great Financial Crash in 2008 (and further). Austerity introduced by policy decisions made by the Government of the time. The impact of those austerity policies is still being keenly felt in many areas, and not least by the 671,000 people living in poverty in 2022. Despite continued urging, consecutive Governments have failed to address this impact in any meaningful way, creating the conditions of scarcity that allow anti-immigrant rhetoric to take hold.
It is also worth noting in this context that Government itself has been cautioned by the Irish Refugee Council to be mindful of language used in official statements regarding migration, with concerns raised over the narrative of some Government communication.
We need to focus on the wellbeing of all. The legitimate expectations of people living in Ireland are not being met. This is most obvious in areas such as housing and homelessness, a two-tier healthcare system, the deepening rural-urban divide, and high levels of poverty and social exclusion, especially among children. These are all areas that must be grappled with in addition to our response to the Ukrainian crisis. They are the reasons we were so unprepared.
We must ask how we can ensure the delivery of an appropriate response, including accommodation; healthcare; childcare; meaningful work; and income; when these are the very areas with which we struggle.
Ad-hoc and Reactive
How do we contend with the very real risk of putting different vulnerable groups, both local and migrant, in competition for scarce State resources? Competition that would be unnecessary if we’d only planned and invested more wisely.
One year on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine we have seen that the ad hoc, reactive nature of policy surrounding immigration is inadequate. It is little wonder that the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric comes at a time of considerable reductions in State support.
We need better, and more inclusive planning. Most of the current response has been short-term. However, the long-term implications, especially with respect to sufficient housing supply, need to be addressed as a matter of urgency as many of these refugees may not be in a position to return to Ukraine for years.
Most of the needs of Ukrainians are very similar to those on which Irish society is already facing major challenges e.g. housing, healthcare, education, public transport, work and childcare. Government must invest in infrastructure and services which benefit all, and encourage awareness-raising among hosting communities, including at educational level.
The implications of the gendered nature of this forced migration also needs to be addressed – most of those arriving are women and children. This cohort has unique and specific needs that must be addressed to facilitate their integration in Ireland, including the provision of appropriate accommodation that both meets their needs and complies with safeguarding legislation for children and vulnerable adults.
There is a moral imperative to respond to the needs of forcibly displaced persons in Ireland in an equal, fair and consistent manner, irrespective of their pathway to protection. The significant challenges to implementation of The White Paper on Ending Direct Provision and the Day Report that have emerged will be exacerbated as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.
Finally, how all of this is to be financed is a question that requires an urgent answer as, while it will cost a great deal of money, this is necessary spending in unprecedented times. Government must borrow to deliver the necessary infrastructure and supports, taking a "war-time" approach to servicing the debt.
Ireland should engage with the EU Commission to ensure they are willing to show further flexibility and suspend the fiscal rules and ensure they are willing to support this correct response to the Ukrainian crisis and resultant forced displacement. This does not mean that we borrow over the long-term to avoid broadening the tax base and increasing the total tax-take. We need to do both, but not simply to reduce the deficit or the debt. There is a pressing need to refocus on preparing Ireland for a post-Ukrainian crisis world. The State should begin to plan now for the additional tax measures necessary, over the long-term, to finance universal services and income supports for all the people in Ireland.
Urgent Need to reduce Inequalities
An unequal society, where basic human rights are denied to tens of thousands of citizens, is ill-equipped to support an influx of migrants. The latest CSO SILC data indicates that inequality as measured by the Gini Coefficient increased between 2021 and 2022, with the richest 20 per cent of people having four times the income of the poorest 20 per cent. In fact, the top 10 per cent of people in the income distribution receive 23.29 per cent of equivalised income - almost one euro in every four.
It is necessary for policy to address inequalities and include future planning regarding all aspects of support across all sections of society. This includes consideration of next steps beyond The Temporary Protection Directive, ending the system of Direct Provision, and a move into preparatory rather than reactive policy systems.
Government's failure to address inequalities is hampering our ability to provide basic necessities for an increasing proportion of the population, is driving division, providing a platform for hatred, and utterly failing international protection applicants fleeing persecution.
 See Migrations in Our Common Home: Responding with Care – Ireland’s response to the Ukrainian crisis
 Coalition warned not to fuel ‘anti-migrant narratives’ in statements on immigration – The Irish Times