Tánaiste says claim that over 80% of asylum seekers come from UK via Northern Ireland is not based on data

UK denies its stance on asylum seekers threatens agreement with Republic

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris and Tánaiste Micheál Martin following a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA

Tánaiste Micheál Martin has said that a claim by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee that more than 80 per cent of people applying for asylum in Ireland are coming from the UK over the land border with Northern Ireland is not based on statistics, evidence or data.

Ms McEntee made the statement to the Oireachtas justice committee last Tuesday, but the figure has since been questioned by organisations including the Irish Refugee Council.

Asked by The Irish Times about the evidence for the claim on Monday, Mr Martin said it was “clear from the presentation of migrants” that there was a change in where they came from.

He added that the Department of Justice had a “perspective” that there had been an increase in the number of arrivals through Northern Ireland.


Speaking at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in London, Mr Martin said: “On the 80% and the evidence: over a while, I think the Department of Justice officials would say – and it’s not statistical, it’s not a database or evidence base – but it is very clear from the presentations of migrants that there’s a change in the nature of where migrants have come from, and that’s the sense and the perspective that Justice have on this.

“Increasingly over the last year or two, there’s been a shift. If you remember, all the earlier commentary was on people coming in on planes without documentation and so on.

“That has lessened somewhat and there’s been a switch in terms of the pattern of migration, that’s the sense from our Justice officials.”

Taoiseach Simon Harris said on Friday that the figures provided by Ms McEntee were based on the number of people registering at the International Protection Office in Mount Street.

However, Nick Henderson, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council said: “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.

Meanwhile, the UK government says it is “surprised” the Irish Government has moved so quickly this week to propose legislation to allow the return to Britain of asylum seekers who arrive in the State from the UK by crossing the border from the North.

Chris Heaton-Harris, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said he hoped the proposed new Irish legislation, which will be brought to Cabinet on Tuesday, was limited only to resetting “a small glitch” in Irish migration law that arose when the High Court last month banned asylum seeker returns to the UK because of its tough new Rwanda deportation regime. He suggested the UK government would be opposed if the proposed Irish legislation went any further than that.

Mr Heaton-Harris was speaking at an occasionally tense press conference in London on Monday afternoon alongside the Tánaiste, following the latest scheduled meeting between the two as part of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) strand of the Belfast Agreement.

Ms McEntee had also been due to attend the BIIGC meeting, but she pulled out late last night after the UK government cancelled a meeting between her and home secretary James Cleverly, as tensions appeared to grow between the two governments over a spike in asylum claims in Ireland from migrants who fled from Britain.

Earlier, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak had said Britain would not accept the return of any asylum seekers who travelled to the Republic after first claiming international protection in Britain. This categorical insistence appeared to directly contradict the repeated claims of Mr Martin that there was already an agreement in place between the two governments that covered the issue.

Standing directly beside the Tánaiste, Mr Heaton-Harris denied that the UK government’s insistence that it would not accept the return of asylum seekers from the Republic constituted a unilateral threat not to implement the agreement to which Mr Martin had referred just minutes previously.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “This is not an example of Britain breaching an international agreement.”

Mr Heaton-Harris repeatedly linked the issue of refugees crossing the Border to the Common Travel Area (CTA) that has existed between Ireland and Britain for more than 100 years, since the Republic gained independence. He acknowledged that both governments had an obligation to prevent “abuse” of the CTA, which allows asylum seekers to travel from Britain without documentation checks to the North, from where they can travel easily to the Republic.

The major row between Ireland and the UK over migration, explained

Listen | 19:52

A major diplomatic spat has erupted between the Irish and British governments over migration.It began when Minister for Justice Helen McEntee stated that more than 80 per cent of recent international applicants came to Ireland from the UK across the border with Northern Ireland.Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made political hay with this 80 per cent figure, saying it proves his Rwanda scheme is deterring migrants from remaining in the UK.The two governments are seemingly a major impasse over how to resolve the issue.It’s a story that involves political posturing in advance of elections on both sides of the Irish sea, but also also an issue of genuine importance to voters and to those seeking international protection.Political Editor Pat Leahy and London Correspondent Mark Paul look at the ramping up of tensions, where it leaves British-Irish relations and its impact on the political issue of immigration here.Presented by Aideen Finnegan. Produced by Declan Conlon.

Mr Martin said the wider issue of migration, including returns, was covered by an unspecified agreement between the British and Irish governments that was reached in the “years after Brexit”. He made at least five references to it during the BIIGC press conference.

The Tánaiste denied there was a “snub” by the Government to the British in the decision of Ms McEntee not to attend the BIIGC. The Department of Justice said she had stayed behind in Dublin to meet her officials, even though several of her senior departmental staff had travelled to London for the BIIGC.

Mr Heaton-Harris said there was “no way” the UK government “would want to upset the relationship” with the Republic. But he insisted that the UK’s priority was to get its Rwanda deportation regime up and running to act as a deterrent to migrants arriving on British shores in small boats, a key political promise of the Tory government. - Additional reporting PA

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times