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FactCheck: how many asylum seekers are entering Ireland via the UK and what does it mean for Rwanda?

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By Brian O’Flynn

The Irish Minister for Justice Helen McEntee sparked a row last week when she said that more than 80 per cent of asylum seekers in Ireland were arriving via the land border with Northern Ireland.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been keen to highlight the claim, arguing it shows his Rwanda policy is working as a deterrent.

But were the Irish minister’s figures correct, and what does it tell us about whether the Rwanda policy is pushing asylum seekers away from the UK?

How many asylum seekers are entering Ireland through Northern Ireland?

We can’t directly verify Minister McEntee’s figures because the Irish Department of Justice doesn’t publish any official statistics on the number of asylum applicants entering the country via the land border with Northern Ireland.

But there is some data that could help us approximate the trend.

Irish officials say that they use the location where an asylum application was made as an indicator of how the applicant entered the country.

Asylum seekers can make their claim for asylum either at ports of entry – airports or sea ports – or internally at the International Protection Office (IPO) in Dublin.

Irish officials say that people applying at the IPO are likely to have come from Northern Ireland by land.

And when we look at the number and proportion of asylum claims made at the IPO versus those at sea and air ports, there’s a clear trend: asylum claims overall are rising, and those made at the IPO are an ever-increasing majority.

Based on figures from the first three months of 2024, we estimate that the overall number of asylum applications by the end of the year could exceed 20,000 – with over 90 per cent of these being made in the IPO.

Though we should say that the IPO data is not a perfect indicator of the number of people arriving from Northern Ireland.

Nick Henderson, the Chief Executive of the Irish Refugee Council, has pointed out that there are various reasons why an asylum seeker who arrives by plane might still make their claim at the IPO instead of at an airport. This includes the fear of being put back on a flight. So it’s possible that some of those IPO applications were made by people who’d entered Ireland by plane, not over land from Northern Ireland.

The Irish Department of Justice acknowledges this, too. But it says its “firm assessment”, based on interviews carried out with asylum seekers, is that “in most cases those applying for the first time in the IPO have entered over the land border”.

This chimes with Channel 4 News’ own reporting in Ireland this week. We spoke to a number of asylum seekers in Dublin who had entered the country by taking a bus over the Northern Irish border. A local volunteer also told us that “almost 70 or 80 per cent” of asylum seekers he works with in Dublin had journeyed from Belfast. Though of course, these are individual cases and not on their own conclusive evidence of a wider trend.

Is the UK’s Rwanda policy pushing asylum seekers into Ireland?

It’s not the first time the UK’s plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing has been linked to a rise in asylum seekers in Ireland.

As Taoiseach in 2022, Mr Martin said that he believed it “may have motivated people utilising the Common Travel Area to come into the Republic”. The idea seems to be that people might leave the UK and enter Ireland to avoid being sent to Rwanda.

We asked the UK government for any evidence that – if more people really are crossing into Ireland from the UK over land – this has been caused by the Rwanda policy. The Home Office did not provide any evidence to support this link.

For now, we don’t have conclusive evidence either way.

As FactCheck has previously reported, the Home Office admitted in 2023 that the evidence that the Rwanda scheme will put people off crossing the Channel in small boats is “uncertain”.

The Irish Department of Justice said that changes to immigration policy  – including accelerated processing of applicants from certain countries – may impact migration trends into the Republic.

FactCheck verdict

The Irish justice minister says that 80 per cent of people seeking asylum in Ireland have reached the country over the land border with Northern Ireland.

There are no official statistics to support this claim. Though there is a dataset that could help us approximate the trend. While imperfect, it’s consistent with the idea that people arriving by land from Northern Ireland are an ever-increasing majority of asylum seekers.

The Irish government says that this data, combined with interviews it carries out with applicants, are the basis of its claim. It also chimes with Channel 4 News’ own reporting from within Ireland.

The UK government was unable to provide us with evidence that any rise in land arrivals in Ireland is a result of the Rwanda policy. It’s possible this could motivate people to travel to the Republic, but we cannot say conclusively either way.

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