Tensions rise as UK refuses to take asylum seeker returns from Ireland

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By Christy Cooney
BBC News

British and Irish ministers are set to meet as tensions grow over the UK’s policy on migrants.

The Irish government says it’s seeing an influx of asylum seekers coming from Northern Ireland because they are “fearful” of being sent to Rwanda.

And it says it will not allow Ireland to provide a “loophole” for anybody else’s “migration challenges”.

But the UK says it will not take them back unless the EU changes its position on returning migrants to France.

Talks between the UK home secretary and Irish justice minister were due to take place on Monday, but were postponed late on Sunday without explanation.

However, ministers are due to gather in London for a scheduled meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

Rwanda plan: Ireland ‘won’t provide loophole’, says Taoiseach

What is the UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda?

Ireland has said 80% of recent asylum seekers arrived from Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has argued that any increased flow of people into Ireland shows that the Rwanda asylum policy, which became law last week, is already working as a deterrent.

On Sunday, Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Simon Harris said he would not “allow anybody else’s migration policy to affect the integrity of our own one”.

He said he had asked Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee to bring legislation to cabinet on Tuesday that would enable asylum seekers to be sent back to the UK.

The planned legislation follows an Irish High Court ruling that Ireland could not designate the UK a “safe third country” and return asylum seekers because of the threat they would be sent to Rwanda.

However, a UK government source said the UK would not accept “any asylum returns from the EU via Ireland until the EU accepts that we can send them back to France.”

Many of those entering the UK illegally in recent years have arrived via crossings in small boats from France. In 2023, a total of 29,437 people entered the UK through this route.

The source added that the government was “fully focussed on operationalising our Rwanda scheme and will continue working with the French to stop the boats from crossing the Channel”.

Monday’s meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference, which was established under the Good Friday Agreement and has met regularly since, will be co-chaired by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and Irish foreign minister Micheal Martin.

Late on Sunday, it was announced that a meeting between Home Secretary James Cleverly and Ms McEntee was not going ahead.

The Irish Department of Justice said the meeting would be “rescheduled in the near future”, though no further details were given.

Ms McEntee had said earlier that she planned to raise migration with Mr Cleverly.

Under the Rwanda policy, anyone arriving in the UK illegally will be deported to the east African country and given the option to claim asylum there.

The plan was approved by Parliament on Thursday after months of political wrangling and legal challenges. The government has said it plans to have the first flights take off within 10 to 12 weeks.

Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, Mr Sunak was asked whether the concerns raised by the Irish government suggested that the UK was “exporting the problem”.

“The deterrent is – according to your comment – already having an impact,” he said.

“People are worried about coming here and that demonstrates exactly what I’m saying: if people come to our country illegally, but know that they won’t be able to stay, they’re much less likely to come.”

The Home Office confirmed late on Sunday that migrants would start to be detained in the coming weeks in preparation for the first flights to Rwanda.

It came after the Guardian reported that the detentions were set to begin on Monday.

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