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Does the data back up McEntee’s claim that 80% of asylum applicants arrive from North?

Ratio of applicants presenting at International Protection Office in Dublin compared with those presenting at ports has risen to 10:1

Aerial view of tents housing asylum seekers near the Office of International Protection, in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The claim last week by Helen McEntee that 80 per cent of those applying for asylum in Ireland were entering Ireland through the land Border with Northern Ireland has sparked a political spat with the British government. But is there data to back up her claim?

Let’s look at the global figure first. The number of people applying for international protection (IP) in Ireland has risen sharply in 2024. More than 6,000 people had applied for asylum by April 12th. Over 2,000, a third of those, are Nigerian.

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If that trajectory were to continue until the end of the year, there would be more than 20,000 applicants in 2024, a record by a considerable distance. The record has stood at just over 13,000 since 2004, when the government responded to the figures by introducing direct provision.

So how did the Minister arrive at the figure of 80 per cent coming in from the North? It is on the basis of a distinctive change in the pattern of how applications have been made, with a sharp decline in the number of people applying for asylum at airports and seaports with a comparable increase in the number applying at the IP office at Mount Street, Dublin.

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In 2019, there was a 1:1 ratio between those who applied at an airport and those who applied at the IP office. By 2022, it had gone to a 2:1 ratio in favour of the IP office (8,782 versus 4,795). In 2023, it shifted to nearly 4:1 (10,380 to 2,857). In the first four months of 2024, there has been another big step-change. The ratio now stands at 10:1 in favour of the IP office compared with ports (4,715 to 420).

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Government Ministers have said the substantial decline in those applying at airports could be attributed to the success of policies such as accelerated process of applications for those from a safe country (there has been a marked fall in the number of applicants from Georgia, for example), stricter enforcement of carrier liability obligations by airlines, and also because of the work of the Border Management Unit, which operates at airports.

The figures are telling. In 2022, almost 5,000 people who had either lost or destroyed all their identity documents arrived at Dublin Airport. The number of undocumented arrivals fell to 3,287 in 2023 and has fallen again in 2024 – in the first three months of the year there were only 618.

But that comes against a big increase in the number of people arriving by other means, or else arriving into the country legally and then applying for asylum.

The 80 per cent figure appears to be based on the presumption by the Department of Justice that if they are not coming via the ports, they have to be coming across the Northern Border. That 80 per cent tallies with the figures for last year of 10,380 presenting at the IP office versus 2,857 at ports and airports.

But is it as simple as that? In a reply to a parliamentary question last month from Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín, Ms McEntee said that when applicants filled in their forms they were asked about the route travelled to Ireland. However, importantly, those records were “not stored in a manner which allows detailed data to be extracted”.

Ms McEntee added: “It is also the case that this data is provided directly by the applicants and therefore it is not possible to verify, based on the fact that there are no border checks or border infrastructure between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Maintaining an open border was a priority for the Government during Brexit negotiations.”

In other words, the 80 per cent estimate is a guesstimate. A number of people have questioned the figure, including the Irish Refugee Council and the Alliance Party in the North. It has been pointed out that the high number who apply at the IP office in Mount Street could include people who have been in Ireland for some time, whose visas have expired or where underlying political conditions in their own country have become more dangerous.

Even if that were so, it would account for only a fraction of the applicants. Some 650 Nigerian people are applying for asylum each month. Yet, statistics from the Irish Embassy in Abuja show that 293 visas have been granted to Nigerian citizens in April 2024, which accords to the monthly average. The vast majority of those adhere to the time limits set out for their visits.

Government sources have insisted there is strong evidence to show that a substantial majority of Nigerians applying at the IP office on Mount Street are arriving from Britain via Northern Ireland, based on their interviews and application records, plus anecdotal evidence from the Border.

It must be said that the open border works both ways, that there have been people who have used the Common Travel Area between Ireland and Britain as a means of getting into the UK.

There have been occasional intelligence-led checks by the authorities on both sides of the Border. Operation Gull (Operation Sonnet in the South) is a long-standing operation set up by both governments to carry out what the Garda described as “immigration controls”. It involved immigration officers stopping and boarding southbound buses and trains close to the Border. They were designed to be “preventive” (spot checks) and “intelligence-led”.

However, because Irish, EU and British citizens were exempt it has led in the past to claims of racial profiling when officers were conducting spot-checks on buses and trains. This has been denied by the authorities but the risk of carrying out racial profiling makes such operations difficult and sensitive to conduct in a fair and equitable manner.

In 2018, then minister for justice Charlie Flanagan told the Seanad that, under Operation Gulf/Sonnet, there were 91 detections in 2015, 27 detections in 2016, and 22 detections in 2017.

He also told the Seanad: “In addition to these days of action, members of An Garda Síochána continually carry out routine checkpoints along the Border in an effort to help detect people attempting to enter this State illegally. As a result of such detections, some 774 people were refused leave to land along the land Border with Northern Ireland between 2015 and 2017.”

There have been no public records of activity under this operation since 2017.

Politically, at this juncture, the appearances are that the Minister for Justice is on a hiding to nothing trying to get the UK to agree to take back applicants who had been residing there. British prime minister Rishi Sunak said on Monday he was “not interested” in striking a deal with Ireland and that the UK would not accept the return of asylum seekers from the Republic.

Last week, the Government brought forward a new policy that will include Nigerian applicants in an accelerated decision process for status. Ms McEntee met her senior officials on Monday to try to finalise emergency legislation that would allow Ireland to send applicants back to the UK, if authorities here could show they had arrived across the UK Border.

The legislation will address a High Court ruling that rejected a Government declaration that the UK was a “safe country” to which to return asylum seekers. The judgment relied on the UK’s new policy to process applications in Rwanda, which it said was not a safe country of origin.

But that will very much depend on co-operation from the UK authorities. Judging by the public responses of both Mr Sunak and British home secretary James Cleverly, that does not seem to be forthcoming. While Mr Cleverly did not have time to meet Ms McEntee on Monday, he did have time to post a slick video on social media outlining the Rwanda policy and how he intended to “stop the boats”. The clear import from his comments, and those of Mr Sunak, is that this problem linked to the open border is Ireland’s problem and they see Britain as being under no obligation to take asylum seekers back.