Rishi Sunak's asylum spat with Ireland explained

 Tents encamped outside the International Protection Office in Dublin.
Tents encamped outside the International Protection Office in Dublin.

Ireland's justice minister complained that migrants from the UK had started crossing the border into the Republic in order to avoid being deported to Rwanda. Helen McEntee claimed that 80% of recent asylum seekers had come from Northern Ireland; days later, the new Taoiseach, Simon Harris, said his government would be introducing a law to override an Irish court ruling that the UK is unsafe for asylum seekers owing to the Rwanda plan, with a view to sending migrants back. However, Downing Street insists that it has "no legal obligation" to accept them.

The Home Office said this week that it has begun detaining the first migrants identified for deportation to Rwanda, and confirmed that the first one-way flights would leave within nine to 11 weeks. However, it also admitted that it has been unable to locate 3,557 of the 5,700 asylum seekers due to be deported, because they're not obliged to report to Border Force.

An extraordinary gambit

"The Irish do like a laugh," said The Sun. How else to explain Dublin's ludicrous plan to send its asylum seekers to Britain? Since we left the EU, France has refused to take back those who reach the UK in small boats. Yet Simon Harris seems to think that Britain can be compelled to accept those who make it to Ireland. "A pointless new law will apparently enforce it. How? Britain won't allow it."

It's an extraordinary gambit, agreed The Times – but Harris is wrestling with an issue that has become toxic in Ireland, as it has in Britain. There have been arson attacks on proposed hostels for asylum seekers, hundreds of whom were living in a "tent city" in central Dublin until it was cleared this week.

Still, that migrants are fleeing to Ireland suggests that the Rwanda plan is having its intended deterrent effect. Even that is not clear, said The Independent. The Irish have provided no data to back up their claim about migrants fleeing the UK; and boats are still crossing the Channel. What migrants may be deterred from is reporting to Border Force on arrival – which would "come as a surprise to no one".

A week of hypocrisy

"For connoisseurs of hypocrisy and irony in politics", the past week has been "one to treasure", said Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail. Days after France's President Macron labelled Sunak's Rwanda plan a "betrayal of European values", the largest grouping in the European Parliament proposed its own scheme to send asylum seekers to "safe third countries". And then Ireland triggered this diplomatic spat.

During Brexit negotiations, Dublin repeatedly insisted that there could be no hard border between the North and the Republic, saying it would undermine the Good Friday Agreement. Yet now the Irish government is complaining that this border is too porous. In doing so, it has presented a problem without a solution, said Sean O'Grady in The Independent. The 310-mile border in question is "basically invisible and imprecise even to the locals, let alone someone fleeing Mogadishu". The idea that Dublin could send migrants back to Northern Ireland and never see them again is for the birds.

Dublin insists it does have the right to return asylum seekers, as part of a reciprocal deal made in 2020, said Nimo Omer in The Guardian. The UK says the deal is not legally binding, and it has never been used. Put on hold during the pandemic, it has been delayed again by the Irish high court's ruling in March that the UK cannot be designated as a safe place.

Dublin's workaround – which may not work, but may persuade voters that it is "doing something" – is to introduce a law that designates the UK as a safe place. Sound familiar? It ought to, said Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph. After all, the Rwanda law does the same thing for that country, and is a similarly "cynical distraction".

By making the immigration debate all about the "relatively tiny" number of people arriving in the UK on small boats (29,437 last year), Rishi Sunak is hoping that voters will continue to overlook the "vast number" arriving on our shores legally (672,000 net last year). "Who does Sunak think he's kidding? Quite plainly, it's us."

'Proof of concept'

The first failed asylum seeker was sent from the UK to Rwanda this week. The man had signed up to a voluntary relocation scheme in which migrants who cannot be returned to their own countries are offered £3,000 to go to Rwanda. The scheme is separate to the enforced deportation plan; but officials said it was "proof of concept".

Those due to be deported to Rwanda have been detained in cities including Glasgow, Bristol and Birmingham, The Guardian reports. Several were detained after turning up for what they thought were routine Home Office appointments.