Emergency legislation will allow ‘operational agreement’ between Ireland and UK on return of asylum seekers to come into force, Government says

Department of Justice planning to take over immigration registration that could free up 100 additional officers for frontline work

The Government says that emergency legislation currently being drafted will allow the “operational agreement” between Ireland and the UK on the return of asylum seekers to come into force, enabling it to send asylum seekers who come over the Border back to the UK.

However, the Government also acknowledges that the “operational agreement” has not been previously in operation, as no asylum seekers have been returned to the UK in recent years.

Asked if it was the intention of the Government to return asylum seekers to the UK once the legislation is passed, the Government’s official spokesman said: “That is the intention.”

However, he stressed that the two governments would co-operate – as they have previously done – in the management of the Common Travel Area between the two countries.


“We are shared islands, we co-operate all the time,” the spokesman told the weekly post-Cabinet briefing for political correspondents earlier on Tuesday.

He declined to be drawn on what would happen if the UK authorities declined to accept the return of asylum seekers – as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said.

There is no phone call between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach planned, he said.

Asked if there was concern in the Government about returning asylum seekers to the UK when they could be sent on to Rwanda, the spokesman said that “As far as we are concerned the UK is a safe country.”

A spokesman for the Green Party said that there was a “long road to go” before asylum seekers in the UK were sent to Rwanda. The British Government has said that it intends to start flights carrying illegal migrants to Rwanda as soon as possible, though there are threats of legal action to block the move.

The Cabinet approved on Tuesday the emergency legislation on Tuesday, which will facilitate the transfer to the United Kingdom of asylum seekers who have arrived through Northern Ireland.

Work on the legislation has been ongoing since the High Court last month banned asylum seeker returns to the UK. The State is now seeking to appeal the finding that Ireland’s designation of the UK as a “safe third country” was unlawful.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee also updated Cabinet around the steps the Government is taking to prevent abuses of the Common Travel Area (CTA). She provided an update on the work of An Garda Síochána, who are responsible for running operations and are working with the PSNI.

The Department of Justice now plans to take over the immigration registration function from the Garda in a move which could free up 100 additional gardaí for frontline enforcement work, including around deportations.

Under the Dublin III Regulation, when a migrant applies for international protection they will be asked about which other countries they have applied. The International Protection Office (IPO) could then decide that another country should be responsible for their international protection application, and they could be transferred to that country. Britain is now outside the EU but both Irish and British governments have had a similar agreement in place since 2020.

Ms McEntee informed Cabinet that the percentage of people now applying for asylum directly at the IPO in Mount Street, rather than at ports of entry, is over 90 percent.

She said in an interview with RTÉ's Six One news: “The figures that I have I stand over. The information given to me by my Department but most importantly the people who are in the International Protection Office who are doing the interviews, who are engaging with the people applying for asylum, is that at least 80 per cent of people are coming through the Border.

“The figure that I gave today represents the number of people that are applying for asylum directly at the International Protection Office which is 91 per cent. Now I’m not saying every single one of those has come across the Border.”

Taoiseach Simon Harris had earlier defended the figure of 80 per cent, but also accepted that it was “almost impossible to know” how many people were coming over the Border on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, in the Dáil on Tuesday, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald accused the Government of displaying “incredible incompetence” in dealing with migration and return of international protection applicants to the UK and giving a “gift to the Tory Party” which was “desperate for a row” with the EU or anyone on the issue of migration.

The Dublin Central TD said the British government contradicted the view that the Irish Government says it has an agreement with Britain on migration control across the border.

“You’ve actually managed to spread confusion between two governments” she said, adding that an immigration system that was humane, fair, fast and efficient was needed.

Mr Harris said the British government has acknowledged that there is an operational system in place about returning migrants on both sides of the border based on the CTA.

The Taoiseach also told Labour leader Ivana Bacik that alternative sanitary accommodation would be provided for the asylum seekers currently living in tents on Mount Street in Dublin city centre after which no tented accommodation would be allowed in that location and the law would be enforced. He said Ireland was not a country where “shantytowns” could be established.

Elsewhere, the Government will shift focus from processing asylum applications to prevention and deportation by allowing An Garda Síochána redeploy 100 officers to frontline duties including duties near the Border.

The redeployment of Garda personnel could lead to a ramping up of Operation Sonnet, a joint operation with the British authorities to ensure that people travelling in the CTA between Ireland and Britain are not doing so illegally.

The long-standing agreement between the British and Irish governments was designed to monitor the Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

A Government spokeswoman said that Operation Sonnet was still a live operation. However, there have been no public statements on its operations since 2018.

Then minister for justice Charlie Flanagan told the Seanad in early 2018 that checks conducted by gardaí under Operation Sonnet between 2015 and 2017 resulted in 774 people being refused entry into the State.

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Operation Sonnet, called Operation Gulf by the British, attracted criticism from agencies working with refugees amid claims that racial profiling was being used in some cases to identify people crossing the Border between Northern Ireland and the State illegally.

In reply to queries about immigration checks for people crossing the Border into the Republic, the Garda said the checks were carried out on a regular basis, with “up to 300 checks per month depending on circumstances”.

The Cross Border Joint Action Task Force will “work together to monitor and detect illegal immigration”, the Garda said.

The taskforce, led by senior Garda and PSNI officers, was set up to tackle cross-Border organised crime.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times