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Ireland, struggling to shelter Ukrainians, halts visa-free travel for other refugees

DUBLIN — Ireland has suspended visa-free travel for refugees coming from much of Europe in a bid to make more space for Ukrainians.

Monday night’s announcement comes after Ireland, already hosting more than 43,000 Ukrainians, ran out of beds earmarked for new Ukrainian arrivals because they were being taken by refugees from other nations.

As a result, hundreds of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, who have landed in Ireland since Thursday have ended up sleeping on the floor of a disused Dublin Airport building and, starting Tuesday, will be temporarily sheltered at an Irish army-erected tent village north of the capital.

Dublin has blamed these problems on an unexpectedly strong flow of non-Ukrainian refugees arriving from the rest of Europe, with current volumes currently double pre-pandemic norms.

The government has cited Britain’s threats to deport newly arrived asylum-seekers to Rwanda as one factor driving more people to Ireland.

However, its decision won’t affect refugee flows from Britain. Instead, it will stop visa-free travel for refugees coming from 20 other countries: Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

All are, like Ireland, signatories to the Council of Europe’s Agreement on the Abolition of Visas for Refugees, a 1960 pact that permits people seeking refugee protection in one signatory nation to travel to other signatory nations for up to three months without a visa.

The agreement gives members the option to suspend its operation. This is the first time Ireland has done so.

“In recent months, we have seen that the visa exemption provided for in the Council of Europe agreement is being exploited,” said Justice Minister Helen McEntee.

Some visiting refugees “enter the state and subsequently claim international protection, despite having already been granted such protection by another European state,” McEntee said.

For at least the next 12 months, she said, such refugees will be allowed to travel to Ireland only if issued a visa.

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney stressed that the change “will assist in the protection of Ukrainians, and those of other nationalities, who are fleeing conflict, as it will lessen the incidence of abuse of this system.”

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