Sunak rebuffs returns deal with Dublin amid concerns over migrants crossing Northern Ireland border

The UK’s Northern Ireland secretary met with Ireland’s foreign affairs minister to discuss concerns about migrants crossing the border

Zoe Grunewald
Monday 29 April 2024 17:16 BST
Government ministers say Dublin’s concerns show the Rwanda scheme is working

Rishi Sunak has poured cold water on a deal with Dublin to return migrants to the UK following concerns from Irish officials that asylum seekers are crossing the Northern Irish border into Ireland.

The prime minister said he is “not interested” in pursuing a deal with his Irish counterparts to return asylum seekers from the EU via Ireland to the UK “when the EU doesn’t accept returns back to France where illegal migrants are coming from.”

It comes as Ireland’s deputy premier and foreign affairs minister Micheal Martin co-chaired a meeting of the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference (BIIGC) in London with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

Speaking to ITV News the prime minister said: “Of course we’re not going to do that”, adding: “I’m focused on getting our Rwanda scheme up and running.”

In a joint press conference following the meeting, Mr Heaton-Harris suggested the issue of asylum seekers crossing to the Republic of Ireland was an indication the UK’s Rwanda scheme was working as a deterrent.

Mr Heaton-Harris said: “The UK’s new deterrent is clearly working and having some impact already.”

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

The cabinet minister also 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”.

Rishi Sunak said he was ‘not interested’ in pursuing a returns agreement with Dublin
Rishi Sunak said he was ‘not interested’ in pursuing a returns agreement with Dublin (AP)

However, Mr Heaton-Harris insisted that UK Government did not want to “upset” its Irish neighbours. He said: “We know this is a very important matter for the British people and we intend to deliver on it”, but added: “There is no way that we would want to upset our relationship with Ireland in this space.”

There was a “joint commitment to protect the common travel area from abuse”, he said.

Mr Martin said any agreements “have to be mutual”, adding: “No one country can say we are sending (people) back if there’s not a reciprocal agreement, and it works both ways.”

Home Office figures show more than 7,000 migrants have arrived in the UK so far this year after making the journey – reaching a new record high for the first four months of the year.

The Rwanda plan - which was passed into law last week - aims to send asylum seekers to the east African nation to deter others from crossing the English Channel.

Labour shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said it is “way too premature” to say that the Rwanda plan is working.

“I suspect, actually, as the weather warms up we will see this scheme, I’m afraid, has not deterred many, many people from crossing the Channel,” Mr Lammy told LBC.

He added: “I think it’s way too premature to say now that we’ve seen a few people go to Dublin somehow this has been achieved. That’s just not going to be the case.”

Mr Lammy also called for a “co-ordinated agreement” with European countries, rather than a “whack-a-mole situation” where compromises are made with individual states as they raise complaints.

Sir Keir Starmer said the government should stop focusing on its “Rwanda gimmick” to control the border and instead take down criminal gangs.

Northern Ireland first minister Michelle O’Neill urged a “thought-out” and “considered” response from both the British and Irish governments
Northern Ireland first minister Michelle O’Neill urged a “thought-out” and “considered” response from both the British and Irish governments (Getty Images)

“We have to stop people arriving in the first place, the only way that that is going to happen is if we take down the criminal gangs that are running this vile trade,” Sir Keir said.

“That’s where this government should be focused, not on this gimmick – the Rwanda gimmick costs a fortune and won’t have the desired effect,” he said. We need to get control of the border, we need stop the boats coming over – take down the gangs that are running the vile trade.”

On Sunday, Northern Ireland first minister Michelle O’Neill urged a “thought-out” and “considered” response from both the British and Irish governments to the concerns that asylum seekers are fleeing to the south of Ireland.

Irish ministers are expected to discuss on Tuesday emergency legislation that would see asylum seekers “returned” to the UK.

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, is contrary to EU law.

Ireland’s justice minister Helen McEntee said in a statement: “I will seek Government approval for the legislation to be rapidly drafted so that the UK can again be designated as a safe country for returns.

“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.”

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.

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

This 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.

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