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War of Words

Cross border migration row: How did Ireland-UK relations break down over asylum seekers?

And what’s the evidence for Helen McEntee’s claim that 80% of of asylum seekers crossed the border? Here’s what we know.

LAST UPDATE | 29 Apr

A SIMMERING DISPUTE between the Irish and UK governments over the issue of asylum seekers has bubbled over into a full diplomatic row as of this morning. 

The late-hour cancellation last night of a meeting planned for today between Justice Minister Helen McEntee and her UK counterpart James Cleverly demonstrated just how strained things have become. 

The British side are saying this is down to a “a diary clash”, with Irish officials suggesting there’ll be a rescheduled meeting soon, but how have we go to this point? 

Crossing the border

PastedImage-28532 McEntee at Committee last week. Oireachtas.ie Oireachtas.ie

The genesis of the row stems from comments made by McEntee at the Oireachtas Justice Committee last week when she said that over 80% of people presenting at the International Protection Office (IPO) in Dublin have arrived into this country via Northern Ireland. 

The government has not provided documentation to support this figure but McEntee said that migration patterns are closely watched and that there is currently a higher level than previously of asylum seekers entering the Republic via Northern Ireland.

The Sunday Times reported yesterday that the number of asylum seekers arriving into Ireland so far this year was 6,739, an 87% increase on last year, with some 91% of those arriving being first encountered by Irish authorities in Dublin city, suggesting they arrived over the border. 

tents-housing-asylum-seekers-near-to-the-international-protection-office-in-dublin-claims-that-the-majority-of-asylum-seekers-entering-ireland-had-crossed-the-border-from-northern-ireland-have-been Tents housing asylum seekers near to the International Protection Office, in Dublin. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

What’s the evidence?

This afternoon, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said that McEntee’s claim that over 80% of immigrants are crossing the border from Northern Ireland is not based on “statistics” but it is rather the “sense” of Department of Justice.

McEntee’s claim has been questioned by the Irish Refugee Council.

Questioned by reporters on what was the evidence for McEntee’s claim, Martin said: “I think the Department of Justice officials would say – and it’s not statistical, it’s not a database or evidence base – but it is very clear from the presentations of migrants that there’s a change in the nature of where migrants have come from, and that’s the sense and the perspective that Justice have on this.”

Nick Henderson, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council questioned the legitimacy of the 80% figure, noting that the Department of Justice has yet to publish a methodology.

“Just because a person has not applied for protection at an airport or port it does not automatically mean the person has crossed the border from Northern Ireland,” Henderson said.

“A person may pass through immigration control and then apply for protection at the International Protection Office,” he added.

Rwanda plan

The 80% revelations caused a significant stir in government and it was enough to prompt Taoiseach Simon Harris into suggesting that immigration laws would “need to change” as a result.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin said out loud what was the implicit assumption from the 80% revelation, that the UK’s Rwanda policy was having an effect as refugees were fearful of staying in the UK. 

In case you’re unaware, the UK’s controversial plan would allow for some asylum seekers who entered the UK illegally to be sent to Rwanda for processing. 

The plan has been mired in legal challenges but the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged that the deportation flights could begin soon.

Sunak hopes that the policy’s implementation will appeal to voters, with the Tories facing an electoral defeat that would see them lose power for the first time in nearly 15 years. 

The stated aim of the policy is to deter people migrating to the UK and the fact that the Irish government has said people are now going to Ireland instead has been held up in the UK as a vindication of the approach. 

Last Friday the right-wing Daily Telegraph boomed as much across its front page, reporting: ’Rwanda threat is pouring migrants into Ireland’.

Sunak intervenes

Sunak himself went further, with a Sky News interview that aired on Sunday morning seeing him proudly declare that the Rwanda plan was operating as a deterrent and encouraging people to go to Ireland instead. 

“If people come to our country illegally, but know that they won’t be able to stay, they’re much less likely to come,” he said. 

While the full interview from Sunak aired on Sunday morning, Sunak’s comments about Ireland were released to the media in advance on Saturday and it prompted Taoiseach Simon Harris into making an intervention himself. 

Speaking over the weekend, Harris said that he does not intend for Ireland to be “a loophole” for other countries’ “immigration challenges” and that emergency legislation would be brought to Cabinet this week which would allow asylum seekers who came to Ireland via the UK to be sent back there. 

Such suggestions are a red rag to pro-Brexit hardliners in the UK who resent that France does not accept the return of asylum seekers who have crossed the English Channel. 

As one UK minister put it succinctly today: “We are not in the business of having more illegal migrants in the UK.” 

The specific context of this week is that local elections are being held in the UK and the Tory government therefore has even more reason to appear tough on immigration. 

Whether this is a factor or not, what we do know is that McEntee and Cleverly were due to meet in London today until it emerged last night that the British had cancelled the meeting. 

An “unavoidable diary clash” is being blamed but, given the precise organisation that goes into such meetings, the timing of the postponement is curious to say the least.

Additional reporting by Muiris O’Cearbhaill and Press Association

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Need more clarity and context on how migration is being discussed in Ireland? Check out our new FactCheck Knowledge Bank for essential reads and guides to finding good information online.

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