Cllr Denis Leonard.

People with legitimate concerns over refugees called ‘racist’

People with legitimate concerns about the government’s handling of the refugee crisis are afraid to voice their opinions in case they are labelled as “racist or alarmist”.

That’s the view of Cllr Denis Leonard from Kinnegad, who says he was “shocked” to recently learn that there are currently 136 Ukrainian refugees and 42 asylum seekers from other countries staying in Harry’s, despite a commitment from the International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) last summer that a maximum of 150 people would be housed in the hotel.

Speaking to the Westmeath Examiner last week, Cllr Leonard said that IPAS have to engage in more dialogue and be more transparent when it comes to housing refugees and asylum seekers in Kinnegad and other communities.

“IPAS seem to have carte blanche. In our case we did have a meeting with IPAS in July after weeks of trying. They promised us that they were moving out asylum seekers and that it would be completely for Ukrainian refugees. We were told that the 45 rooms would be used for women and children, in the main, that were coming from Ukraine.

“There doesn’t seem to be any credibility with IPAS in the way they deal with communities. They tell you one thing and do completely another. That really annoys people.

“When people complain about these things, they are either branded racist or alarmist and it’s said that they don’t want refugees in the country – which is completely wrong. Rightfully, people are told not to protest outside accommodation centres because there are a lot of innocent and vulnerable people there, but the fact is people are still annoyed about a system that seems to be not fit for purpose.”

Cllr Leonard says that the failure of IPAS to properly engage with communities means the integration process “starts off on the wrong foot”.

“People get annoyed and it’s not fair on the refugees either – they are coming from a war torn country and need support.

“I think that where the whole thing is breaking down is in relation to communication. And we are just one case in point.”

The Kinnegad councillor said IPAS need to be clear and they promise something or give an undertaking, they need to follow through on it.

“I know emergency situations happen but I don’t think it is ideal in any shape or form to have mixed provision [refugees and asylum seekers housed together].

“One of the issues that every community faces is that if they try to complain about the immigration system, the National Party and all these extremists come into your community and they try to take over the whole thing, and it creates an impression that you are anti-refugee or asylum seekers.

“Irish people, including the people of Kinnegad, are generous seem to end up in a situation where they are either branded as racist or seen to be not politically correct when all they are trying to do is trying to make sure there is accountability.

“The county council should be in charge of accommodation and should be in charge integration. LWETB should be in charge of education. All of that should be in place before any large group of people arrive.

“While people have integrated in Kinnegad, children are going to school and volunteers are teaching people English, it has happened in a knee-jerk sort of way and got off to a bad start because of the way it was done.”