By Niamh Kennedy and Donie O’Sullivan, CNN
When Maria Kozlovskaya, 25, looks out the window, she sees the green fields of the west of Ireland. It’s a far cry from the bombed-out buildings of his hometown of Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine. Forced into exile by the conflict, the young mother found an unlikely refuge in a 15th century castle in County Galway.
“I never dreamed I could live in a castle in the future,” she says, still in awe after two months of living at Ballindooley Castle with her sons, Illya, 5, and Matvey, 7.
Owner Barry Haughian, who bought the castle as a second home in 2016, was inspired to travel to Poland after watching CNN’s coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kozlovskaya, who traveled with Haughian to Ireland, admits she didn’t fully grasp the scale of the castle until she arrived.
Great efforts have been made to accommodate the 11 refugees who now call Ballindooley Castle home. The grand great room, once the setting for lavish banquets, now serves as a breakfast table for young children.
In South County Cork, 31-year-old Vera Ruban finds herself in less royal surroundings. She was one of the first Ukrainian refugees to be placed in emergency Irish government accommodation after hotel rooms ran out. The performer from Hostomel, near kyiv, now sleeps on a single bed inside the Green Glens Arena, an equestrian and entertainment venue in the small town of Millstreet.
Although their living conditions could not be more different, the two women managed to quickly settle in Ireland. The fluid nature of the process has prompted questions from asylum seekers fleeing conflict in countries other than Ukraine who say they have encountered an arduous asylum process that can take years to navigate.
Ireland, an island of just over 5 million people, has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than many of its larger Western European neighbours. Ukrainian refugees started arriving in early March and so far more than 30,000 refugees have arrived.
Nick Henderson, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council, an NGO providing services and support to refugees, said the government had made a “positive start” by swiftly invoking the Temporary Protection Directive, an exceptional measure activated by the European Union which allowed member states to waive visa requirements for refugees for up to three years.
So far, Ukrainian refugees have mainly been accommodated in hotels, guesthouses and volunteer houses. As the approaching tourist season looks set to create a shortage of hotel rooms, the Irish government intends to reallocate vacant holiday homes, convents and student residences to accommodate new arrivals.
The government has not indicated how long these facilities will be used to house refugees. Prime Minister Micheál Martin has repeatedly pledged not to limit the number of Ukrainian refugees hosted by Ireland.
Roderic O’Gorman, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, told CNN that while it’s not “all kind of reference accommodation that we would like”, Ireland is doing its best to ensure Ukrainians here have safety.
Ruban, who decided to travel to Ireland after hearing about the welcome she was providing to refugees, told CNN she “had no expectations” of the accommodation.
The arena where she now lives has been divided into a series of living areas, containing a small kitchen, living area, and separate beds.
The majority of arena residents, she believes, are “happy to have a roof over their heads.”
“A lot of people who came here, they left good facilities, good life and they are very shocked… But they are not complaining,” she said.
In Galway, Kozlovskaya is delighted that her sons were able to go to school within five days of their arrival and have so far found it “easy” to make new friends.
However, not everyone is happy with the Irish government’s response. Ireland’s warm welcome to Ukrainian refugees has rekindled a heated debate over its treatment of asylum seekers fleeing other conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Syria.
Over the years, the country has been repeatedly criticized for the way it treats asylum seekers. Under its direct delivery system, asylum seekers are housed in temporary accommodation while they wait to find out if they have been granted refugee status. Initially introduced as an emergency measure in 1999 in response to rising numbers of asylum claims, then formalized in 2020, the reception system has been mired in controversy in the two decades since.
Asylum seekers have filed numerous complaints about the system’s long processing times, substandard housing and violations of fundamental rights, including the right to work.
It drew criticism from opposition parties, NGOs and, above all, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which in a 2015 report said that long stays in direct delivery prevented asylum seekers to integrate properly into Irish society.
Lucky Khambule is a former asylum seeker who arrived in Ireland from South Africa in 2016. He knows all too well how the direct provision system works, having spent three years sharing a room in a government-run facility. in Cork.
“It took me by surprise that I couldn’t do anything. You know, that was the most frustrating thing. That I was in the system and suddenly I couldn’t work. I couldn’t study. I couldn’t make my own meals, you know. And I was just taught to be lazy, to sleep and to eat, to sleep and to eat…Every day you hope something will happen,” a- he told CNN.
According to the UNHCR, an asylum seeker in Ireland can expect to wait 14 months for an initial decision on asylum status.
Khambule, who co-founded the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), which campaigns for better conditions for asylum seekers, says the government’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has left asylum seekers other countries feel “marginalized”.
“As for the treatment of Ukrainians…it showed that from the beginning the government is able to treat us better,” he said.
According to Khambule, while asylum seekers have to wait an average of three to four months to obtain a “blue card” simply identifying them, Ukrainian refugees have bypassed this step.
“It is not acceptable that we as a state can provide immediate assistance to people at an airport when they arrive, (like) PPS numbers, it’s like our social security number. But at the same time, there are people who have been living in Dublin for months, who are not getting the same support,” said Henderson, from the Irish Refugee Council.
Similarly, while Ukrainian children were quickly enrolled in Irish schools, children of asylum seekers in emergency accommodation experienced delays in accessing school. A 2020 report by the Irish Center for Human Rights found that children receiving direct services “are barred from attending mainstream school with other non-asylum-seeking children for months and are instead isolated in emergency education facilities that are unregulated and under-resourced.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education told CNN: “In Ireland, all migrant children, including children of applicants for international protection, refugees, migrant workers and unaccompanied minors, can access education. pre-school, primary and secondary education in a manner similar to Irish nationals, until they have reached the age of 18. In Ireland, a school must admit all applying students when it is not oversubscribed and places are available.
The statement also noted that “schools are not required to verify the residency status of refugees or other applicants seeking a place at the school.”
Khambule: “We look different, we are treated differently”
Khambule points out that while Ukrainian refugees were allowed to swap driving licenses for Irish ones, “asylum seekers weren’t even allowed to drive here” until a recent court ruling.
The war in Ukraine “got people’s attention,” Henderson said, trying to explain Ireland’s change in approach.
Khambule accuses the government’s response of being essentially “racist”, saying that because Ukrainians “are their neighbours, because they look like them, they treat them that way”.
“We look different, we are treated differently,” he said.
CNN contacted the Irish government for a response to Khambule’s claims. A Ministry of Justice press officer told CNN that Ireland’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis was “part of an EU-wide response” and “in line” with its obligations as an EU member state.
“Historically, when large displacements of people have occurred as a result of violence and conflict in countries like Syria and Afghanistan, the safety and shelter of people forced to flee has largely been provided to them by their neighbors. nearest ones,” the publicist told CNN.
She said the Justice Department is working to ensure that decisions on asylum applications are made “as early as possible to ensure that those who need state protection can receive it. quickly and begin to rebuild their lives”.
The press officer also said Ireland has “historically provided a number of targeted protection programs to help people fleeing conflict”, referring to earlier programs in response to conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.
Despite the disparity in treatment, Khambule says asylum seekers in Ireland “stand in solidarity with what (Ukrainians) have been through”.
“We don’t want this to happen to anyone. But we say, remember, other people from other countries who are also fleeing war. Palestine…, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Congo,” he said.
Henderson said the government’s response has fundamentally created “concern” and raised important questions. “Why are we not able to do everything we have done for Ukrainian refugees and apply it to all asylum seekers? He asked.
Although Ireland “is excellent at emergency response”, he said, the government must now consider a long-term plan to deal with the wider refugee crisis.
Back in the grandeur of Ballindooley Castle, Kozlovskaya can’t help but think about the future too.
Although she hopes the war will end soon and she can return to Ukraine, she is now convinced that Ireland is “really a good place for us to live now”.
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