“Thank you very much Ireland,” said Kate Kolva, waving a little blue and yellow flag in the arrivals hall at Dublin Airport.
As she waited to collect her best friend’s mother, Ukrainians with no family connections with the country were all too easy to identify.
All morning they arrived. Looking dazed as they streamed through the doors. Children clutching teddies, mothers, some elderly, pulling their world’s belongings in one or two bags. As they looked on, tears welled up behind the public barrier among those waiting to collect tourists and business passengers. “I cannot cry any more,” said Kolva.
Next to her stood Angelo, waiting for his girlfriend, Natalya. She had made the gruelling 30-hour journey from Kyiv to Warsaw a week earlier but had been stymied by UK immigration rules. Her boyfriend described how she had been denied travel at the boarding gate because the plane was transiting through Stansted.
“They did not allow me on the plane because they asked for a visa for the UK. I said ‘how can I get a visa? There is a war in my country’,” said Natalya, who had left a good job in Kyiv working for a media agency.
She had no such problem getting into Ireland. “It was very easy. Someone just said, ‘who is from Ukraine?’ and they gathered up the group and took us to the plane.”
Within minutes Kolva’s best friend’s mum, Olha Novikova, 69, arrived. Her eyes were swollen, her voice etched with anger and sadness. “She is happy to be safe, but she doesn’t want to be in Ireland. She wants to be back in Ukraine to help fight the Russians,” Kolva translated.
These were just two of the 500 people a day seeking sanctuary in Ireland in the wake of the war. Within minutes of arrival, they are taken to a welcome building with food, drinks, phone chargers, toys and people buzzing around to help with registration for residency.
During a week in which the UK and the Home Office were battered by sharp criticism for insisting that Ukrainians must apply for a visa before entering the UK, the contrast in Dublin could not have been starker.
While one builder in Calais complained that British authorities had “treated us worse than the water in the toilet”, turned away after a 2,000-mile journey because they had no visa for the UK, Ireland lifted visa restrictions and extended the right to live and work for up to three years.
As the numbers of arrivals ballooned in Ireland, the government decided the refugee crisis should be met with a humanitarian response with efforts to simplify all the paperwork needed. Crucially, it would be completed after arrival, not before.
The Dublin Airport Authority decided to donate its headquarters and government departments dealing with housing, health, and immigration together set up a “one-stop shop” to ease the plight of refugees.
“This is the first port of call for so many people who are arriving from Ukraine who have fled over the past number of days. What’s really important is that when they arrive first they get a very warm welcome,” said justice minister Helen McEntee.
A bright and airy building, 500 metres from the arrivals hall, it was bustling with activity with toys, sim cards, cots, changing rooms and pallets of free food and soft drinks.
Arrivals first sat down to complete the paperwork that will generate Ireland’s equivalent of a national insurance number and temporary residency protection.
While immigration checks were completed, refugees were invited to wait upstairs in a newly created lounge complete with colourful cushions brought the day before from Ikea.
Mothers could leave their children in a supervised soft play area next door or pick up toiletries and care packages from a series of rooms converted into free shops stacked with everything from toothpaste and tampons to shampoo and baby clothes. The airport authority had even brought down its collection of lost buggies.