UK and Ireland hold talks amid escalating Rwanda asylum row

Britain has rejected Irish government's plan to send back asylum seekers arriving over border from Northern Ireland

Tents housing asylum seekers near the Office of International Protection in Dublin. PA
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UK and Irish ministers held talks on Monday amid claims that Rishi Sunak's Rwanda scheme is diverting asylum seekers to Ireland.

Recent figures show that, due to a shift in migration patterns, more than 80 per cent of people applying for asylum in Ireland are coming over the land border from Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.

The UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the increase showed the Rwanda plan, under which asylum seekers will be sent to the east African nation to deter others from crossing the English Channel, is "working".

Ireland wants to send the asylum seekers back to the UK under an emergency law. However, No 10 Downing Street has rejected any bid by Ireland to do sounless France agrees to do the same.

Micheal Martin, Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, co-chaired a meeting of the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference (BIIGC) in London on Monday with the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, where they discussed the possibility of returns.

Speaking at a joint press conference in Westminster following its conclusion, Mr Heaton-Harris suggested the issue of asylum seekers crossing to the Republic of Ireland was an indication the UK's Rwanda scheme was already working.

"The UK's new deterrent is clearly working and having some impact already," he said. "And the impact will obviously increase as the first flights take off for Rwanda."

He added: "We will obviously monitor all this very closely and continue to work with the Irish Government on these matters."

The cabinet minister said while the deterrent effect of the Rwanda scheme was anticipated, "we are slightly surprised that it manifested itself so quickly after the Act became law".

Mr Heaton-Harris suggested he was "comfortable" with the Irish government's proposed legislation, which he said was just resetting the legal position following an Irish High Court ruling that the UK was no longer a safe country.

The Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris has said Ireland would not "provide a loophole" for other countries' migration challenges.

Rwanda's migration centre facilities – in pictures

The Prime Minister told ITV News he is "not interested" in pursuing a deal with Dublin on returning asylum seekers from Ireland to the UK.

"We're not interested in that. We're not going to accept returns from the EU via Ireland when the EU doesn't accept returns back to France where illegal migrants are coming from.

"Of course we're not going to do that."

Asked whether there were any negotiations with the EU on returns, he said: "No, I'm focused on getting our Rwanda scheme up and running."

It comes as police will begin to detain asylum seekers identified for deportation to Rwanda from Monday, weeks earlier than planned, The Guardian reported.

Irish ministers are expected to discuss the emergency legislation under which asylum seekers would be returned to the UK on Tuesday.

The legislation is being drafted in response to an Irish High Court ruling, which found that Ireland designating the UK as a "safe third country" for returning asylum seekers, in the context of the Rwanda plan, was contrary to EU law.

"I will seek government approval for the legislation to be rapidly drafted so the UK can again be designated as a safe country for returns," Helen McEntee, Ireland's Justice Minister, said in a statement.

"My department has been working on this as a priority since last month's High Court judgment and I intend that returns to the UK will recommence once the law is enacted."

UK government's Rwanda bill passed by Parliament – in pictures

A UK government source said: "We won't accept any asylum returns from the EU via Ireland until the EU accepts that we can send them back to France.

"We are fully focused on operationalising our Rwanda scheme and will continue working with the French to stop the boats from crossing the Channel."

Some 500 migrants crossed the Channel to the UK on Friday and Saturday alone, taking the total for 2024 to date to 7,167.

That exceeds the previous record high figure of 6,691, for January to April 2022, and has already surpassed the 5,946 arrivals in the first four months of last year.

It means arrivals are 24 per cent higher than this time last year and 7 per cent higher than at this point in 2022. No crossings were recorded on Sunday.

Updated: April 29, 2024, 1:59 PM