British prime minister Rishi Sunak ‘not interested’ in deal with Ireland to return asylum seekers to UK

Helen McEntee pulls out of British-Irish conference after meeting with UK minister was postponed

British prime minister Rishi Sunak has said Britain will not accept the return of asylum seekers from the Republic who entered the State via the North. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

British prime minister Rishi Sunak has said Britain will not accept the return of asylum seekers from the Republic who entered the State after travelling from Britain via the North.

Mr Sunak said he was “not interested” in striking a deal with the Government over the issue, as he linked the UK’s refusal to accept the return of refugees from the Republic to France’s refusal to accept the return from Britain of refugees who travelled on small boats from French beaches.

The UK prime minister’s decision to categorically rule out accepting refugee returns from Ireland comes as the Irish Government prepares emergency legislation to facilitate the deportation to Britain of asylum seekers who arrive via the North.

But speaking to ITV in Essex on Monday morning, Mr Sunak said he makes “absolutely no apology for doing everything I can to tackle illegal migration”.


“We’re not going to accept returns from the European Union 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. I’m determined to get our Rwanda scheme up and running because I want a deterrent,” said the prime minister.

Mr Sunak’s comments came after it was confirmed Minister for Justice Helen McEntee pulled out of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference meeting in London today, her spokeswoman has confirmed.

The move follows the cancellation by the British side of a meeting that Ms McEntee was due to have on the margins of the BIIGC meeting with home secretary James Cleverly.

“The Minister will meet with senior officials in Dublin today and regrets she won’t be in attendance at the BIIGC, which will be attended by the Tánaiste. The Minister looks forward to her meeting with the Home Secretary being rescheduled soon,” a spokeswoman said in a statement this morning.

However, it is understood that a number of her senior officials are already in London, having travelled there to attend the intergovernmental conference.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin will represent the government alone at the meeting.

A scheduled meeting between Ms McEntee and her UK counterpart James Cleverly was postponed at the last minute late on Sunday evening.

In a statement, a spokesman for Ms McEntee said that the meeting with British home secretary James Cleverly, which had been due to be held in London on Monday afternoon, “has been postponed, and will be rescheduled in the near future”.

It is understood that the home office told the Irish Department of Justice that an unavoidable diary clash had arisen.

The meeting between the two ministers was due to take place against the backdrop of a diplomatic spat between London and Dublin over the flow of migrants across the border, estimated at more than 80 per cent of all international protection applicants by the Department of Justice.

However, the chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council has questioned this figure. “We don’t know how the Department of Justice came to the 80% figure and, as far as we know, has not published its methodology,” said Nick Henderson.

“Just because a person has not applied for protection at an airport or port it does not automatically mean the person has crossed the border from Northern Ireland. A person may pass through immigration control and then apply for protection at the IPO.”

Daniel Holder, director of Northern Ireland’s Committee on the Administration of Justice, said he is “sceptical” of the claims.

“When you look at what the Department of Justice said, they said the border wasn’t monitored routinely and the 80% seems to be based on the fact that a lot of international protection applications are happening in-country, in the Mount Street office rather than happening at ports and airports.

“But there’s a broad range of reasons why that would be the case. A lot of people make their asylum claims in-country and not at ports, they don’t realise you need to do it at port.”

On Sunday, Taoiseach Simon Harris said that Ireland would not provide a “loophole for anybody else’s migration challenges” after Mr Sunak suggested increased flows into Ireland were evidence that his government’s controversial plan to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing was working.

He added: “Every country is entitled to have its own migration policy. But I certainly don’t intend to allow anybody else’s migration policy affect the integrity of our own.”

Political sources in Dublin speculated that the meeting may have been postponed in order to allow for the situation to calm down. The two ministers had been set to discuss ways of making the Common Travel Area function better, as well as cracking down on abuse of it. However, it is thought that the British side has also found the Irish interjections to be unhelpful while the Irish side consider Mr Sunak’s comments to be unnecessarily inflammatory.

A Government source in Dublin added that the British government is 72 hours away from an election, suggesting that there is a political element to the move.

It comes as Ms McEntee puts the finishing touches to legislation that will allow returns of asylum seekers who have come across the Border. Ireland will begin sending asylum seekers back to the UK immediately after emergency legislation is passed enabling returns to restart, under the plans.

It is understood the Government is considering whether people coming here from the UK could be sent back there or to their original home country following processing here, which sources said could act as a significant disincentive.

Mr Sunak’s comments sparked a sharp reaction among Coalition figures over the weekend, who believe the Conservative government in the UK is happy to emphasise the flow into Ireland for political gain.

It comes as the Irish Refugee Council raised concerns over Government plans to fast-track returns of asylum seekers coming from Nigeria after a spike in applications from the country – many of whom are thought to be coming from the UK.

Mr Henderson said that the State had the power to accelerate applications, its view was they could not be treated the same as if it were from a person whose home country is on a designated list of safe countries where the process is streamlined.

“Our view is that these practices cannot automatically apply to an application from a person from Nigeria, just because those applications are being prioritised: it is not a designated safe country.” He said the Government had considered putting the country on the safe country list in 2023, but had not done so.

A Government source said that, from a human rights perspective, a faster processing time was a positive development.

Mr Henderson said access to legal aid must be made available to those undergoing accelerated processing, and if it were not, “we would have great concerns”. - Additional reporting PA

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times