AT the moment there are just over 3,000 refugees from Ukraine living in Clare, having fled their homes following the brutal Russian invasion of their country.
Providing care and support for so many means numerous challenges, and Jason Murphy is in charge of Clare County Council’s response, having been appointed Director of Services for Ukrainian Services Development.
It’s a position no one could have envisaged would be needed this time last year, but while putting support structures in place was required quite suddenly, Jason says some of the structures Clare had in place from the Covid-19 response were a help.
“None of the Covid response was from one agency, it wasn’t from one agency, one community group, it was everyone in County Clare responding and the Ukrainian piece, it’s an all-of-Co. Clare response as well.
“While Clare County Council has a co-ordinating role, various agencies have their own responsibilities and actions, NGOs are out there leading as they have always done and community groups have done what they did all the way through Covid, which is work closely with people on the ground and make sure that people are safe and well,” he said.
“Before this we had the Community Response Forum for Covid-19. In effect it has been repurposed (for the Ukraine situation) because all the agencies and people and networks were there so it made a lot of sense.
“In actual fact the communities began to respond themselves immediately anyway. This has been a grassroots response across the county,” Jason added.
There is a countywide agency forum every fortnight, with organisations like the HSE, Túsla, the Gardai and the Limerick and Clare Education & Training Board all represented.
“Every month there are also local response meetings for four areas, Kilkee, Shannon, Ennis and Lisdoonvarna.
He said the local meetings provide a good insight into what is happening and what’s required, while the information gleaned from them is passed onto national bodies.
“We’ve had four very good meetings, those meetings have been very honest and frank and I think that’s healthy, it’s very important.
“There have been some good understandings gained out of what’s going on locally and the pressures there, hearing what’s happening at community level really confirms what we really hear at county level in some instances, whether it’s school provision, bus services, GP services, accommodation provision, pressure on wider communities.”
National agencies have so far taken responsibility for finding accommodation, while the Council’s role is to work with the other agencies and community groups to help them then.
“Our role really is to continue to work with them, to see that they are treated right, that they can integrate as well as possible. We are looking for sustainable communities here in Co. Clare.
“One of the things that strikes me about the recent figures of the 54,000, about a third of those are minors, they’re children. Sixty four per cent are female, and then there’s a cohort of older people.”
He feels that the contribution Ukrainians have made to the economy at a time of labour shortages might be underestimated.
“An interesting figure is that about 11,000 of the population that have come in are working, they have employment. And that’s a significant contribution to the performance of the country.”
Many of those who live in Clare work locally, he added.
“When you look at the spread of the employment, it’s in the areas people are actually in. It’s not like Clare received 3,000 and the work is some place else. The work is in Co. Clare, they’re contributing to our local economy.”
In many cases those who reach Clare do so with very few possessions or resources, and he says the services try to help them quickly.
“The wraparound services that kick in very early are the HSE, Clare Local Development Company and the Clare Immigrant Support Centre.
“Within the first 48 hours most people have been assessed or spoken to. It might be a blur to them early on but the services are wrapping around them.
“The Clare Local Development Company have put a team in place and they’ve started using Telegram as a way of sharing communication to the communities, in Ukrainian.
“The HSE also have a Telegram page where they are sharing access points to the services, through channels the Ukrainian people are using themselves.”
An influx of Ukrainian refugees saw the population of Ballyvaughan virtually double, without many extra resources being put in place, and some weeks ago the local community development group warned that too much pressure has been put on local infrastructure and facilities.
Jason says that their concerns are quite legitimate, that the national agencies have been made aware of the problems, and he is hopeful there will be action.
“The community group are well able to express themselves, they are very engaged and it’s a credit to them. They have participated in the North Clare Forum, they have been very honest and forthright in their thinking, they have very legitimate concerns around the services available to the wider community and the numbers gone into the community up there.
“They’re used to a tourism season and now they have a different type of season with the accommodation that’s available.
“They have made their voice heard and expressed themselves very well nationally. We have supported that voice nationally by presenting our insights based on the data we have.
“We know there are a lot of people in the accommodation in Ballyvaughan and we know that there is pressure on GP services and bus services and we have voiced those concerns as well. I think nationally they are listening, we’ll wait and see.”
He said that only with honest conversations about what is happening, can progress be made.
“If cohesion in Clare is going to remain it can only happen if all voices and all concerns are heard. There were always going to be challenges that have to be worked through and that we’d need dialogue around.”
He feels that everyone he has encountered in his role wants to do the right thing and to be helpful. “There is no one at any meeting not focused on solutions. That, for me, has been remarkable over the last few months. That desire to do the right thing hasn’t waned.
“When the challenges come up they are highlighted but the desire to work together has never waned. There’s a solidarity across agencies, NGOs and the community that is remarkable in Clare. It’s a credit.”
Obviously the arrival of Ukrainian refugees was a shock when it commenced, but is Clare now on top of the situation?
“It has been a huge change internationally that has affected us locally and Co. Clare has been hugely responsive. That’s not about Clare County Council, that’s about every NGO and community group.
“What we need to do now is to continue to listen to what the communities are saying to us and what the agencies are saying, to make sure that we can continue to adjust, whether its funding provision or service provision, that we can adjust to make sure that continuity can be maintained.
“What I’d say is we are continuously responding to an influx of people. That hasn’t changed. What we are doing is recognising that it’s the norm now, and we’re asking what are we going to be doing in a few months time?
“We recognise that the crisis is now consistent and now we need to be looking at what happens in six months’ time and looking forward.
“We need to tighten up our structures, make sure that the supports are there for all our community response forum agencies and put the structures in place so that in 12 months’ time we’re still in a position to deal with the ongoing crisis.”
In general the county has responded very well, he feels. “The cohesion in Co Clare has been remarkable.”
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.