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10 Aug 2022

Council hears of local efforts to tackle Ukrainian crisis


1,657 refugees in 24 towns throughout Donegal

Council hears of local efforts to tackle Ukrainian crisis

Donegal County Council's Director of Community Development and Planning Services, Liam Ward, right addresses Monday's special council meeting held to deal with the Ukrainian refugee crisis

Issues and challenges facing the 1,657 Ukrainian refugees currently based in 24 locations around Donegal were laid bare for Donegal's county councillors at a special meeting to brief them on the inter-agency response to the humanitarian crisis.

At the outset of the gathering in the Aura Leisure Centre in Letterkenny outgoing cathaoirleach, Cllr Jack Murray lauded what he called the heroic response by the people of Donegal to the plight of the people of Ukraine and their hellish circumstances.

Council chief executive, John McLaughlin said it was a measure of any society how it treated and responded to people in difficult situations such as this.

Director of Community Development and Planning Services, Liam Ward provided an overview of the role the council had been asked to play in identifying potential accommodation and establishing a community forum to coordinate support and services.

He said the response to date by all agencies, statutory and non-statutory has been excellent with a great deal of coordination, sharing of information and effort very much in evidence.

"There is, without doubt, a number of challenges that collectively we are facing. The three main areas are accommodation, resources, transport and access to information in a timely manner.

"We have relied on people coming forward with offers of accommodation and they have been taken up in great numbers but there is obviously a concern that as the war situation continues will there be a further demand and will we in Donegal be able to match that demand."

Challenge

Mr Ward said the council would not have planned for such a situation at the start of its year so planning its use of resources was a challenge.

He added another major challenge for a large rural county like Donegal was transport and access to information in a timely manner.

"We were usually hearing about refugees arriving in a particular location after the event. There was very little opportunity to have any pre-planning done at all but I have to say the response from the primary response agencies has been excellent."

A number of speakers from the different agencies outlined their roles in the current situation.

Pauric Fingleton from DLDC said they only were told when a bus was leaving the City West Hotel in Dublin but had no control over where it was going and often refugees had arrived at their accommodation in Donegal before the information was shared with them.

He outlined what happened when families arrived and how they provided support as required. A What's App group had been set up to include all refugees at all centres so they had a point of contact to seek support. They also recruited volunteer coordinators with good English among the refugees at each centre who become the main contact for the DLDC team.

Mr Fingleton said the support of the community and voluntary sector is paramount to the successful integration of the refugees but added challenges included rural settings with no access to amenities or transport; some accommodation centres continue to operate as hotels and public houses which present huge safeguarding issues; no training in terms of refugee welfare and protection; challenges at the places of accommodation in terms of the provision of meals, laundry or transport; school places, uniforms and books; access to GPs; trauma services; lack of summer schools, childcare issues and activities; coordinating support; work and the need to have plans in place to help those who wanted it and the continued motivation of the community and voluntary sector as the number of refugees increase the empathy and goodwill of local community and volunteers is diminishing.

"It's a big ask of the community to keep going and going and be relying on them to support the families day in, day out," he added.

He added school spaces are limited in places like Bundoran and Ballybofey where numbers are so high (25%+ of the population).

Other speakers

Other speakers included Barry McLaughin from the Inishowen Development Partnership. He said they had approximately 200 Ukrainians in Malin-Carndonagh; Buncrana and east Inishowen in the Moville-Muff area. He outlined similar challenges and tasks they had confronted and how they had brought refugees from different areas together through community groups. Transport again emerged as one of the biggest challenges they faced.

Paul Kernan from the Intercultural Platform said transport, accommodation, education and medical facilities are also featured in their work. They had produced materials in Ukrainian and Russian to help refugees access the education system in the county and country in a different environment to what they were used to. They had also established a Ukrainian Family Support Hub, English conversation classes, phone-based interpretation service and support for those dealing with moving from a medium-term response to a longer-term residence.

He added they were also bringing in Ukrainian volunteers to assist not just with the language but with encouragement and engagement, especially for younger people who had to deal with a new language and new way of life in another part of the continent.

Trish  Garland, Social Inclusion Manager with the HSE, Marty Keeney of Tusla, Ann Keegan, Department of Social Protection and Raymond Mackey from the Irish Red Cross gave a breakdown of their health services to help refugees and the various levels and supports for various needs financial payments, employment services, integration and restoring family links.

Eamon Ryan from Donegal Education and Training Board said Donegal was in the top seven counties in Ireland in terms of enrollment of Ukrainian students. 

"As of June 6, there were 314 students enrolled in Donegal schools - 229 in primary and 85 in post-primary. Schools are allocated additional teaching hours relating to the number of Ukrainian students enrolled.," he said. 

He added challenges included the uneven distribution of Ukrainians across the county, local school capacity, the movement of Ukrainian families, the temporary use of third-level student accommodation, improving the standard of English and students accessing schools where Gaeilge is the predominant language.

"Currently there are classes in 23 locations county-wide reaching 692 adults," he added.

In a written report from the Local Links transport service, the meeting learned that there were capacity issues on certain routes and in particular Glencolmcille to Donegal Town and Ballyshannon to Sligo while it was not possible to provide a daily service to certain locations such as Meenreagh.

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