Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called for the need to secure the borders of the European Union to prevent human trafficking and for rejected asylum seekers to be deported in a hardening of rhetoric as EU leaders met for an extraordinary summit on migration.
The 27 national leaders called the summit after several member states recorded a large increase in irregular crossings of EU borders and appealed for joint action to address the issue, though it was somewhat overshadowed on Thursday by the surprise visit of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“Refugees are welcome in Ireland. People who need our protection should get it. We also need to be firm with people who come to Ireland with a false story or false pretences,” Mr Varadkar told journalists, saying a key topic for leaders was “how we can better secure our external borders around Europe”.
“We should decide who enters our country, not criminal gangs,” the Taoiseach said. “Lots of people coming into Europe gain refugee status or the right to remain, but others don’t, and they should be returned.”
Asked if the Taoiseach was referring to specific recent instances of human trafficking, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said that authorities all over the EU were seeking to combat the problem of trafficking and that Ireland was not immune to this.
The Garda confirmed it was investigating “a number of specific cases of human trafficking at present”.
Later, after a meeting with Mr Zelenskiy, Mr Varadkar said that he did not wish for his comments to be perceived as a hardening tone on immigration.
“I’m somebody who’s in favour of migration. I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “It strengthens our economy, we wouldn’t run half our public services without migrants and [it] enriches our culture too.
But he added that as well as being “fair” with refugees, Ireland needed “to be firm as well with people who come to the country with a story that doesn’t stack up. We need to be very clear to them, that their applications will be refused and that they will be sent home to their country of origin.”
EU leaders agree there is a need to increase the rate of deportations of people whose applications for refugee status are rejected. A draft copy of the summit conclusions read that “swift action is needed to ensure effective returns” of those whose asylum applications fail.
The lack of co-operation of countries of origin in receiving back their citizens is a major obstacle to deportations and the draft conclusions backed the idea of “using as leverage all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including diplomacy, development, trade and visas”.
Some member states have pushed for an even harder line, including the swift rejection and immediate deportation of people from countries that are considered safe such as Morocco or Georgia, removing the prospect of a lengthy appeals process.
There is also a push for the EU to strike agreements with non-EU countries for asylum claims to be processed outside its borders, and for the union to even consider cutting development aid to countries that don’t agree to take back their citizens when they are deported – something the Irish Government is understood to oppose.
A key row ahead of the summit was over whether EU funds should be used to fund border barriers, reflecting a shift in policy since European leaders condemned the “build a wall” pledge of then-US president Donald Trump five years ago.
Austria has led calls for such measures after applications for asylum there tripled in 2022 to reach 108,490. The Vienna government has said that a large proportion of these travelled into the EU across the Bulgarian-Turkish border and has called for EU funding for a barrier there.