In this article Caroline Forde reports on the housing crisis and its effects on vulnerable communities in contemporary Ireland. Interviewing Hani, a young Syrian refugee living in the so-called “Refugee Hotel” in Ballaghaderreen Co. Roscommon, she argues that government action is long-overdue in tackling the present lack of appropriate housing. As Hani asserts, the Irish government ‘don’t know how to deal with promises’.
Syria, a country known for its longstanding wealth of literary and artistic culture, has come to international prominence because of a civil war that has waged for seven painful years. Many of us have read the stories, seen the heart-breaking images of a people struggling to survive amidst devastating air strikes resulting in conditions recently described as ‘hell on earth’. An estimated 11 million people have fled their homes since 2011. To date, Ireland, the country from which people have historically emigrated in their droves, has accepted 859 Syrians under the Refugee Protection Programme. This is less than a third of the meager commitment made by the Department of Justice and Equality.
Known as the ‘Refugee Hotel’, an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centrein the remote town of Ballaghaderreen in rural west of Ireland, currently houses 240 individuals. In a house, not far from its location, Kate and I met with Hani, a young Syrian who has lived in this centre for a year. I had been following the response to the humanitarian crisis, yet this was the first time I spoke with a Syrian refugee about the lived reality of relocating to Ireland. Despite the trauma he has undoubtedly experienced, he was friendly and welcoming; but what struck me most was his positive and practical attitude.
Hani and his friends are very grateful for the help they are receiving in Ireland. When I asked him what hopes or expectations they had upon arrival, he answered ‘none’. Having fled their homes and lives in Syria, they simply sought safety. At first, the process appeared straightforward and they began to think about their future in this new and very different country. The Department advised them they would receive their residency following a three month waiting period. However, one year later, what was described as an ‘initial reception’ has become a way of life for many of the refugees living in Ballaghaderreen. Unrealistic expectations and false hopes created by the Department have materialised as nothing more than broken promises. ‘They don’t know how to deal with promises’, Hani lamented. Had the Department better handled the situation, he and his friends would have put a plan in place to progress their education and integration. Instead, they effectively lost a year in a place that affords few opportunities for young people. This, in addition to a lack of updates regarding their situation, has left these refugees bored and frustrated. Indeed, they are ‘becoming very calm. It’s like they’ve lost their souls.’
However, Hani and his friends acknowledge there is no specific action the government can take to address their situation. Rather, the underlying issue is one that affects our wider society – the ongoing Housing Crisis. He noted that, among refugees, families are understandably prioritised, while single individuals are left with limited options, each of which presents challenges rendering them either untenable or unsuitable. The first option is to rent private accommodation. This requires a long-term job, which are in short supply and, in turn, generally necessitates a third level qualification. Due to issues such as disrupted study in Syria, the first priority for many refugees is to earn a qualification that will enable them to gain full-time work. However, to study, they must find accommodation that qualifies under the Housing Assistance Payment Scheme (HAP). According to Hani, the majority of single Syrian refugees who found available accommodation within the last six months could not secure it either because the landlord refused to accept HAP payment or the rent was too high. It seems that tax arrears amounting to thousands of euros prevent several landlords from engaging with this scheme. The location of third level institutions providing specific educational courses is an added restriction.
The other option available to single refugees is to move in with a family who have registered a pledge with the Department. While this may work in some circumstances, those known to Hani who have been placed in pledged accommodation report several obstacles. Though the families are not necessarily at fault, these include restrictions such as lack of privacy and freedom in terms of cooking and bathroom usage due to differential work hours and young children living in the home. Speaking of his cousin’s experience, he maintained: ‘It’s not his house. He’s like a guest for a year. You can’t live like a guest for a year’.
The meaning of sanctuary
These obstacles make it extremely difficult for single Syrian refugees to integrate and have a detrimental impact on their mental health and well-being. War strips so much from people who risk everything to escape. The resettlement programme’s remitis to provide sanctuary. However, sanctuary ceases to be a safe place when isolation and depression reduce it to our most basic needs for food and shelter. The system ostensibly designed to protect Syrian refugees is instead creating new barriers to be overcome. The same is true for the 4,300 asylum seekers living in Direct Provision (DP) centres around the country. Indeed, several individuals who have received their refugee status remain in DP because of a lack of affordable housing. Travellers are yet another vulnerable group who face numerous barriers in relation to securing appropriate housing. According to the Irish Traveller Movement, poorly designed and maintained sites continue to affect Traveller’s health, education, employment and opportunities for inclusion.
Then we have the ‘homeless’. In January 2018, over 9,500 individuals were struggling to survive in State-funded emergency accommodation, 184 individuals were sleeping rough in the winter of 2017 in Dublin and almost 100,000 people are on social housing lists. This is a countrywide problem, one that has reached epidemic proportions, yet remains unaddressed by successive governments, which brings us to the underlying conceptualization of the issue. Who counts as homeless in Ireland? This very question was recently debated in the Dáil, as opposition members challenged the narrow definition employed by Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy TD. Homeless individuals are not only those currently recorded by our government.Temporary accommodation, whether it is a reception centre, a hostel or a domestic violence refuge, is not a home. It is the first important step, yet the words ‘temporary’ and ‘emergency’ have become meaningless to those who have lived in this liminal state for far too long. Is this the ‘orientation’ we promised refugees? Housing is central to integration. Indeed, it can be argued that it is the foundation upon which each aspect of Pierre Bourdieu’s economic, cultural and social capital is built.
What is the solution?
Clearly, a system-level change is required. To begin with, rent and property taxes must accord with HAP and local authorities need to spend the funding allocated to investment in culturally appropriate housing for Travellers. People Before Profit outline a number of remedies, such as delimiting the right to private property and investing the capital from employment creation in social housing.
Having studied architecture in Syria, Hani plans to complete an Access courseand then a degree in IT, combining both to help improve our housing crisis.When asked about the psychological help provided in the meantime, he had this to say:
‘Our people don’t believe in talking. They believe in doing things, going out of the house, finding work, starting education, starting. They have to start doing because you can talk for 100 years. Nothing change’.
And so we left him. Driving home, we came across an estate not far from the centre, where several houses are boarded up and vacant. ‘People without homes; homes without people’. There are solutions. As Liam Farrell maintains in his February article on homelessness and vulture capitalism, ‘[p]olitics is ultimately the struggle over the future through the names and visions we give to it’. We simply need a government willing to unshackle itself from the neoliberal constraints of the ‘Republic of Opportunity’ and embrace a true vision of change for its people.
What can you do?
We must put pressure on our government to address the Housing Crisis. Please sign this petition calling on the Housing Minister to take action and share widely:
With thanks to Hani, who decided to share his story and real name because this is not just an issue he faces; it is a serious issue for a large number of people in Ireland.
Caroline Forde is a member of the Galway Anti Racism Network (GARN) and a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Global Women’s Studies, School of Political Science and Sociology at NUI Galway, Ireland.
Kate O’Connell is also a member of the Galway Anti Racism Network (GARN).
A branch of ENAR Ireland, GARN is a grassroots community group committed to promoting racial equality and social justice. We believe that everyone deserves the same respect and rights regardless of origin, ethnicity, appearance or belief system.