Can Refugees Breathe New Life Into Ireland’s Empty Towns? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Can Refugees Breathe New Life Into Ireland’s Empty Towns?

Can Refugees Breathe New Life Into Ireland’s Empty Towns?

By Stephen Starr


Because refugees need a home, and Ireland has plenty to spare.

By Stephen Starr

If County Roscommon is known around these parts for being remote, Ballaghaderreen and its 1,808 residents are a small mark on Roscommon’s map. Like towns across rural Ireland, Ballaghaderreen has been crippled by the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis. The closure of a major meat-processing plant in 2010 took out 200 jobs. By the time Ballaghaderreen’s 70-bed Abbeyfield Hotel shuttered a year later, unemployment had soared to four times the national rate.

Today, “Ballagh,” as it’s known to locals, has seen its fortunes begin to pivot. A staff of 20 is back in action at the Abbeyfield Hotel, which reopened last March as an emergency reception and orientation center for 120 refugees from Syria and elsewhere. It is one of many hotels and residences that fell silent a decade ago as Ireland’s paralyzing recession took hold and are now being revitalized as accommodation centers for the new arrivals. With an additional 440 refugees cleared last month to relocate to Ireland from camps in Greece, demand for accommodation around the country is set to grow. “A lot of smaller towns were chosen to host refugees,” explains Mary Gallagher, from her clothing store in Ballaghaderreen’s town center, “because they are emptying out.”

I would be happy to stay in Ballaghaderreen or any small town anywhere in Ireland; I love the countryside. 

Mahmood al-Halla, Syrian refugee

With cities such as Dublin caught in the throes of a housing shortage, Ireland’s smaller towns are stepping in to host refugees — a policy borne as much out of necessity as design. According to the Central Statistics Office, Roscommon’s population increased a measly 18 percent of the national rate between 2011 and 2016; Kerry, a county in the southwest that’s now home to dozens of refugees, grew at just 40 percent. County Mayo in the west, where 86 refugees are establishing new lives, actually saw its population decline.

These are counties that suffered more than most during a brutal austerity regime that began in 2010 when Ireland was forced to take an $80 billion bailout from international lenders in order to remain solvent. Blame for the crisis, which was fueled by an overheated housing market, is mostly assigned to the government for having encouraged investors to buy into housing projects in rural townlands such as Ballaghaderreen by offering generous tax breaks during the Celtic Tiger years. When the banking system collapsed, and with no buyers on hand to move into those homes, the developers set down their tools and walked away. In 2010, at the height of the crisis, 4,000 half-built developments known as ghost estates littered Ireland’s towns and villages. Ballaghaderreen today is home to five more or less worthless developments, with a total of around 200 houses in varying states of disrepair — a huge number for a town of that size.

Which raised a question that may seem obvious now: Why not let refugees fix up and live in the ghost estates? It’s an idea pushed by one of Ireland’s most influential economists, David McWilliams, who argued in 2015 that it “would be a blessing to the State to have regeneration” of the ghost estates by refugees. He notes that’s what happened, successfully, in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in Israel after 1945. “Such a development would be like a giant communitarian work program, which would give the migrants a massive project and inject life into the estates,” McWilliams claims.

Allowing refugee communities to resuscitate empty neighborhoods is a trend that’s emerging throughout Europe. In eastern Germany, some of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who arrived in 2015 are living in once-vacant Soviet-era housing blocks, and in Athens, a group of leftists turned a deserted hotel into a home for refugees when the migrants’ dream of reaching western Europe ended with the closing of Macedonia’s border.

In the case of Ireland’s ghost estates, however, similar ventures may not be as straightforward. “Many [ghost estates] are unfinished, dangerous or derelict. They would need to be habitable,” says Mary Gilmartin of Maynooth University in County Kildare. “The second issue is the specific context: What is the size of the local community? What services are available to refugees?”

Some new arrivals find that temporary housing setups like Ballaghaderreen’s Abbeyfield Hotel are tough going. “Having a family with young children living in a hotel room for four or five weeks is OK in our situation, but for five, six months, it is not normal,” says Mustafa Mohammad from Latakia in western Syria. “We can’t cook, we can’t live properly.” The temporary centers were originally expected to accommodate refugees for stays of eight to 10 weeks, but government processing delays mean refugees have been forced to defer their entry into Irish society.

The benefits of getting refugees settled in homes and contributing to the economy are well-documented: A 2016 McKinsey report estimates that the 2015-16 flight of refugees and migrants into the European Union “can deliver a positive overall GDP contribution of about €60 billion to €70 billion annually if the refugees are integrated into the labor market and society by 2025.” For governments, the migrants are a ready source of tax dollars and labor without ever having had to fork out for education and health costs. With Ireland the fastest-growing eurozone economy for the past four years, many experts think housing solutions for refugees ready and eager to work should be a priority.

And it’s employment opportunity, refugees say, that is the deciding factor as to where they will eventually settle. “I would be happy to stay in Ballaghaderreen or any small town anywhere in Ireland; I love the countryside,” says 21-year-old Mahmood al-Halla, a painter from Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria. “But, of course, it depends on where we can find jobs.”

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