Just under a month ago, the Irish Examiner reported that:
Over 200 rooms in student accommodation across Limerick and Cork are currently being used to accommodate Ukrainian refugees currently, with plans for more to be made available.
Colleges across the country are working with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to provide temporary homes for refugees, with 3,700 beds currently available nationwide.
A department spokesperson told the Irish Examiner that more beds will become available later in the summer and exit dates have been agreed “to ensure student accommodation is available ahead of the new academic year”.
“Some of this accommodation is provided by universities/colleges themselves; some are private providers of student accommodation,” it was added.
The bit in bold is key: The Government has a deal with the colleges which says that all of this accommodation is in temporary use, only, over the summer, and will revert to its intended use for students in the Autumn.
So, when I write that the Government is facing a student accommodation crisis, I do not necessarily mean that the crisis will entirely be the absence of rooms for students. It might well be what to do with several thousand Ukrainians who need new lodgings.
But some of it, for sure, will be about students who can’t find rooms. Consider the second part above: Some of these rooms are not state owned, but private providers of student accommodation who now are hosting Ukrainians. The Government and the State have an incentive, in the case of the rooms they directly control, to free them up for students. Private providers, though? Instead of students, those guys now have permanent residents whose bills are paid by the state and who are – sorry to stereotype, now – probably a bit cleaner and tidier than the average student. Why would they want to give up on a good thing?
Anyway, this is all part of a bigger problem: The summer is masking a whole slew of problems for Government that will only become apparent in the winter. It is warm, so people are not reliant on their heating, or being squeezed by bills. Kids are home from school and college. The weather may even be putting people in a good mood. But by the end of September, this, amongst other things, is going to be a big problem.
And this one is not solvable in time. Try as it might, the Government cannot make two go into one. There are X number of students and Ukrainian refugees, and only X number of available rooms and beds. It is probable, in the Government’s defence, that when they agreed to take as many people as they did, they believed the war in Ukraine would not last until Autumn, and that many of the refugees would have returned.
As it is, though, there may well be a case for asking many of them to return.
Remember that, in the first weeks of the war, Russia was threatening Kiev and central Ukraine. It no longer is. The front lines of the conflict are now (to the abiding consternation of some pro-Russian and vocal readers) fixed in place and barely moving. There’s no obvious reason why someone from Kiev or Lviv would need to be sheltering across Europe when the front lines of the war are hundreds of miles to the east of those cities. What are they refugees from, at this stage? The Russian Army is not – or at least not in any way that is obvious – on the verge of a crushing breakthrough anytime soon.
In fact, asking some Ukrainian refugees to go home would probably be good for Ukraine. That country could benefit from the morale boost of a public confident enough in its armed forces to return to the country, and live there in defiance of the Russian advance, or attempt at an advance. Ukraine’s industry needs workers, and people. Those cities which were damaged in the fighting in March need people to return and make them livable. They need shops open again, and life to return. There could be no greater sign of anti-Russian defiance than Ukrainians going back to normal, and giving Putin’s army the middle finger.
What’s more, it’s important for western countries to make clear that while our willingness to accommodate people fleeing a war is absolute, it is not permanent. That is to say, it should be abundantly clear in public policy that if you flee a war, you go home when the threat has passed. It is not hard to foresee, for example, many groups saying that even when the war is over, Ukrainian refugees should be granted leave to remain on the basis that their country is wrecked. No doubt, there are also some who, having left, will have no desire ever to return.
But this was never the deal. The word “refugee” is derived from the word “refuge”. We offer refuge during the crisis. Not once the crisis has passed.
For much of Ukraine – outside the far east of the country, and the south – the worst of the crisis has passed. There is no fighting in most of the country. Some of these people, I think, should be asked to return to their homes.