Ireland’s leader has condemned a suspected arson attack after a hotel that was set to become housing for asylum seekers was burned to the ground on Saturday, the latest incident to lay bare pockets of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.
The fire broke out before midnight at Ross Lake House Hotel in Rosscahill, County Galway, in the west of Ireland, destroying the building. Up to 70 asylum seekers were to be housed there starting this week. No injuries were reported.
The blaze comes just weeks after violence, sparked by a knife attack in Dublin on Nov. 23, devolved into a xenophobic riot, and as the country grapples with fringe far-right violence and xenophobia that has increasingly spilled out into the light.
Leo Varadkar, the country’s Taoiseach or Irish prime minister, said in a written statement on Sunday that he was concerned about a number of recent reports of damage, including the fire on Saturday, to places that were set to host asylum seekers around the country. It was unclear how the fire began and investigations into the circumstances continued, a police statement said, referring to the blaze as “an incident of criminal damage by fire.”
“There is no justification for violence, arson or vandalism in our Republic. Ever,” Mr. Varadkar said. He made clear that like much of the rest of the world, Ireland was “dealing with a major step-change in the numbers arriving here, seeking protection.”
“This is driven by war, poverty, climate change and human rights abuses in their home countries,” Mr. Varadkar said.
He also added details that seemed to be directed at assuaging concerns about the vetting of asylum seekers, which has been a rallying cry of some who oppose the placement of this type of accommodation in their communities.
“I want to assure people we have a rules-based system and are processing applications in record time,” he said. “All asylum-seekers are registered, fingerprinted, checked against watch lists, and the circumstances surrounding their request for asylum are examined thoroughly. We aim to treat them with dignity and respect while their applications are considered.”
Ireland, like much of Europe, has received an influx of newcomers in recent years as war, climate change and economic instability have driven global migration, sometimes leaving countries struggling to adapt. In the year ending this past April, net migration to Ireland, which had a population of 5.2 million, was 77,600, second only to a net immigration record for the country set in 2007 of 104,800.
Even though asylum seekers make up a relatively small portion of the overall number of arrivals, with fewer than 14,000 people applying for asylum in Ireland in 2022, they have often been the focus of vitriol and anti-immigration sentiment. Ireland’s direct provision program provides accommodation for those awaiting a decision on their asylum claim.
Ireland has also hosted more than 100,000 Ukrainians who have fled conflict in their home country since Russia’s full-scale invasion in early 2022. While asylum seekers and others wanting international protection have been successfully housed in communities across Ireland, and the vast majority have received a warm welcome, there are pockets of discontent.
Experts who track the far right say that extremism has proliferated in recent years on social media, as it has in the United States and much of Europe, and language portraying migrants as a threat in Ireland has made its way into the mainstream.
Phrases popularized by far-right influencers online, characterizing migrants as “unvetted” and “military-age men,” have also increasingly been echoed by members of the public looking for somewhere to place their discontent, the experts say.
The fire on Saturday is not the first time that a facility planning to host asylum seekers has been targeted in Ireland.
In 2018, groups of people set fire to hotels planning to house asylum seekers, and in the years since xenophobic demonstrations have been staged in small towns and villages countrywide. Earlier this year, a makeshift camp for refugees was set on fire in Dublin.
“The people carrying out these crimes are a very small minority,” Mr. Varadkar emphasized in his statement, adding that most people “empathize with those fleeing truly terrible circumstances and recognize the benefits that legal migration, in general, brings to Ireland.”
“I hope that as we continue through the winter, we can continue to treat those arriving here with the basic dignity and decency we would want for our own,” he said.
A day before the blaze, a protest was held outside the Ross Lake House, with some people blocking the entrance to the hotel. People could be seen in news footage keeping warm by lighting fires in metal drums. Among them were some local politicians.
“The people are afraid of what’s in front of them,” Séamus Walsh, a local councilor at the protest, told the national broadcaster RTÉ on Friday. “This is a beautiful area, locals from around use it as a walking amenity through the woods and that. They’re afraid of what they will encounter from now on with every sort of stranger in the area who they don’t know.”
The hotel had not been in use for more than a year, and residents of the area were recently informed that the hotel would be used to house asylum seekers as part of a government contract.
Politicians and rights groups have denounced the rhetoric they say is driving up local discontent.
“Politicians across the board should condemn this disgraceful act and the fear-mongering that led to it,” Roderic O’Gorman, Ireland’s integration minister, said in a statement posted on the social media platform X hours after the fire.