Ukraine refugees face means test for healthcare and college as Government tightens up on supports for those fleeing war

Ukrainian refugees queue to get the bus after crossing into Poland following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Kacper Pempel / Reuters

Hugh O'Connell, Senan Molony and Ralph Riegel

Ukraine refugees in Ireland face being means-tested for access to healthcare and further and higher education as part of a toughening up of the State’s policy towards those fleeing the war.

Amidst a growing accommodation crisis, ministers have been told that all government departments will now be reviewing their current emergency response to the war in Ukraine and moving to “sustainable” models of providing supports and services.

Departments will have to ensure these supports and services are “consistent and equitable in terms of criteria, needs assessment and means-testing as normally apply”, including access to health, further and higher education and other State supports.

This comes on top of measures announced on Friday which will see Ukrainians housed in hotels no longer able to refuse multiple offers of accommodation and being forced to pay for their meals at the hotel as well as transport and other services.

In a bid to free up space in Direct Provision accommodation, Ministers also agreed on Friday to remove the automatic entitlement to medical cards for those living in Direct Provision centres who have permission to remain in Ireland and instead move to a means-tested approach.

Those same Direct Provision residents who have leave to remain, of which there are estimated to be around 4,500, will also lose their automatic entitlement to the points system that some Direct Provision centres use to give residents access to food and household items.

Double payments for people who volunteer as hosts to Ukrainian refugees have also been approved by Cabinet.

The monthly stipend will change from €400 to €800 in an effort to encourage more families and property owners to come forward in the accommodation crisis.

Other measures taken by a special incorporeal Cabinet meeting on Friday afternoon include:

  • A €50m Community Fund to recognise local efforts
  • Expansion of rapid-build accommodation and the refurbishment programme
  • Maximising places by allowing for dormitory-style accommodation
  • A new State-led Vacant Homes Call to the public

The call for a fresh supply for vacant homes will be led by Local Authorities “to ensure more rapid turnaround of the mobilisation of the offers from the public,” a Government statement said.

Ireland has accommodated up to 56,000 men, women and children from Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February.

The Government said the current package of measures was designed as a crisis response on a short-term emergency basis. But it acknowledges that all current space has become maximised, with Ukrainians fearful of sleeping on the streets or in tents.

The latest efforts are to meet current overcrowding as well as those likely to be further displaced by the ongoing conflict.

Ministers agreed that a move from an emergency response to a “more mainstreamed approach” is appropriate in light of the high numbers of people coming here — including those seeking asylum under international protection rules.

It stresses the need to maximise all existing capacity and to bring greater consistency of approach, while ensuring fairness for all those who rely on state supports.

“This includes taking account of the level of income supports being provided by the State in addition to accommodation and access to a range of state services,” a Government statement said.

“This will include moving to a more standard offer of accommodation only.”

The Government also acknowledged that some communities have welcomed a significant number of arrivals from Ukraine and that the contribution of those places around the country must be recognised.

The Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphreys, and Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien will now work to develop a €50m programme of supports to ensure that that levels of access to public services and community facilities are maintained and expanded.

The community fund will thus prevent the extra numbers welcomed into places from Donegal to Kerry affecting service levels, such as queuing for GP services.

The Government also agreed to expand and accelerate the refurbishment programme and the rapid-build modular homes programme.

This will include ensuring all available properties, including those with dormitory configuration — such as disused barracks — are reopened to avoid any person being turned away. There will be a “substantial increase” in the number of such units in 2023.

To meet volunteer contributions to the accommodation crisis, the Recognition Payment will be doubled to €800 with effective from December 1.

Work will continue with the Ukrainian community to assess and respond to concerns regarding access to local services, as well as isolation issues.

There are plans for local transport solutions for homes in more rural locations — which could allow more refugees to take up work.

The Government also considered an assessment of future housing needs arising from the population changes arising from the Ukraine crisis.

“In the immediate term, Government remains firmly focused on the day-to-day challenge currently being experienced in sourcing a suitable volume of accommodation to meet the significant number of daily arrivals,” a spokesman said.

There are likely to be “ongoing capacity issues,” but the Cabinet vowed that Ireland stands over its international commitments to stand in solidarity with Ukraine.

The country will continue “doing all it can to provide a place of safety to those fleeing this unjust war.”

Earlier, Taoiseach Micheál Martin strongly defended Ireland's stance on the Ukrainian war by insisting the country had accepted more refugees per capita than almost any other European country.

Mr Martin said Ireland was dealing with "an unprecedented" challenge given the scale of the first major war Europe has faced for almost 80 years.

Mr Martin vowed that the Government was doing everything it could to tackle a crisis of unprecedented scale against the background of an already difficult national housing situation.

Ireland is trying to provide shelter for 50,000 plus Ukrainian refugees while the number of international/non-Ukrainian people seeking protection in Ireland has also soared by 400pc.

"It is a very significant challenge - the number of people seeking international protection separate from Ukrainians fleeing war has increased dramatically this year (as well) for a variety of reasons and we are doing further analysis on that," he said.

"The average prior to this year would have been about 3,500. We are now looking at potentially 14,000 in this calendar year seeking international protection."

"We are doing everything we possibly can in terms of procuring accommodation and a range of measures will be dealt with today by the Government following on the Cabinet sub-committee last week across the broad suite of areas that need to be dealt with."

These measures range from the reconfiguration of old buildings, repurposing other structures, securing holiday rental homes, using rapid build modular houses and even, in emergency cases, using accommodation in Defence Force barracks previously reserved for enlisted personnel.

"Ukraine is a very vicious war which is targeting civilians. Europe has to stay united and we have to stay together to ensure that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin doesn't win and that his strategy of weaponising migration, weaponising energy and weaponising food does not succeed,” Mr Martin said.

"We have not experienced this type of situation since World War II on the continent of Europe. We are in a wartime situation and it is having its impact."

"It is stretching and challenging our accommodation (resources) - of that there is no doubt."

The Taoiseach said Ireland had responded very emphatically to the humanitarian crisis.

"Relative to other European colleagues Ireland has responded very strongly and in my view well to the crisis in Ukraine," he said.

"Some 55,000 people have fled Ukraine have now come to Ireland. We would be ahead of most countries in Western Europe in terms of per capita numbers that have come into Ireland. So I think that always needs to be taken on board when we are making any analysis of the wider situation."

But with the fighting intensifying in eastern and southern Ukraine, Mr Martin said Ireland faces future challenges.

"There are significant challenges ahead - of that there is no doubt. We need more capacity. I believe we can create additional capacity although it will remain challenging. We will work with the Ukrainian embassy and community in terms of those issues."

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