UK and Irish ministers to meet amid row over migration

UK and Irish ministers are due to meet in London amid an escalating row over migrants travelling from the UK to Ireland.

Ireland’s deputy premier and foreign affairs minister Micheal Martin is to co-chair a meeting of the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference (BIIGC) in London on Monday with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

Home Secretary James Cleverly and Justice Minister Helen McEntee had been due to meet on Monday to discuss “strengthening” the Common Travel Area, but the meeting was postponed late on Sunday night.

(PA Graphics)

It comes as Channel crossings continue and Home Office figures show more than 7,000 migrants have arrived in the UK so far this year after making the journey – reaching a new record high for the first four months of a calendar year.

It was confirmed on Monday that Ms McEntee will not attend the BIIGC and will instead meet senior officials in Dublin.

“The minister looks forward to her meeting with the Home Secretary being rescheduled soon,” a statement said.

Ms McEntee has claimed that the number of asylum seekers crossing from Northern Ireland is now “higher than 80%” due to a shift in migration patterns in recent months.

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Irish premier Simon Harris said Ireland will not ‘provide a loophole’ for other countries’ migration challenges (Brian Lawless/PA)

After Mr Martin said the increase could be driven by migrants in fear of being deported to Rwanda, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that shows the UK’s Rwanda plan’s effect.

The plan aims to send asylum seekers to the east African nation to deter others from crossing the English Channel.

Irish premier Simon Harris said on Sunday that Ireland will not “provide a loophole” for other countries’ migration “challenges” and said Ireland will draft legislation for a “new returns policy”.

Mr Harris also said that “close” collaboration and co-operation between the British and Irish Governments is “not just desirable, but absolutely essential”.

In response, the UK Government rejected any bid by Ireland to return asylum seekers unless France agrees to do the same with boats crossing the Channel.

“We won’t accept any asylum returns from the EU via Ireland until the EU accepts that we can send them back to France,” a Government source said.

Mel Stride, the UK Work and Pensions Secretary, said on Monday that the claimed increase in people seeking asylum in Ireland who have crossed the border are early signs of the Rwanda plan’s effectiveness.

Asked whether the UK would accept asylum seekers being sent back across the border into Northern Ireland, Mr Stride told LBC: “We are not in the business of having more illegal migrants in the UK.

“What you are seeing now are the early signs of the deterrent effect works. That’s exactly why we are now having this conversation, because we have now passed that legislation.

James Cleverly
The meeting between James Cleverly and Helen McEntee was cancelled (Victoria Jones/PA)

“The Prime Minister has made it very clear – in 10-12 weeks’ time we are going to be seeing people going on to planes, we are geared up for it, it’s going to happen, and my view is it’s going to work.”

Labour’s David Lammy said it is “way too premature” to say that the Rwanda plan is working.

“I suspect, actually, as the weather warms up we will see this scheme, I’m afraid, has not deterred many, many people from crossing the Channel,” the shadow foreign secretary told LBC.

“I think it’s way too premature to say now that we’ve seen a few people go to Dublin somehow this has been achieved. That’s just not going to be the case.”

Mr Lammy also called for a “co-ordinated agreement” with European countries, rather than a “whack-a-mole situation” where compromises are made with individual states as they raise complaints.

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Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald and Stormont First Minister Michelle O’Neill in Dublin on Sunday (PA)

On Sunday, Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill urged a “thought-out” and “considered” response from both the British and Irish Governments.

Irish ministers are expected to discuss on Tuesday emergency legislation that would see asylum seekers “returned” to the UK.

The legislation is being drafted in response to an Irish High Court ruling which found that Ireland designating the UK as a “safe third country” for returning asylum seekers, in the context of the Rwanda plan, is contrary to EU law.

Ms McEntee said in a statement: “I will seek Government approval for the legislation to be rapidly drafted so that the UK can again be designated as a safe country for returns.

“My department has been working on this as a priority since last month’s High Court judgment and I intend that returns to the UK will recommence once the law is enacted.”

Migrant Channel crossing incidents
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, by a Border Force vessel (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Mr Martin said: “I am pleased to be in London for another important meeting of the BIIGC, the first such meeting since the restoration of the Strand I and Strand II institutions.

“As ever, there are numerous areas of mutual interest for the Governments to discuss and I look forward to another productive conference.”

Some 500 migrants crossed the Channel to the UK on Friday and Saturday alone, taking the provisional total for 2024 to date to 7,167.

This exceeds the previous record high figure of 6,691 for January to April 2022 and has already surpassed the 5,946 arrivals in the first four months of last year.

It means arrivals are 24% higher than this time last year and 7% higher than at this point in 2022.

No crossings were recorded on Sunday.