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Rwanda plan: Ireland ‘won’t provide loophole’, says taoiseach

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By Matt FoxBBC News NI

Simon Harris was speaking to reporters at a memorial event in County Monaghan

The Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Simon Harris has said other countries’ migration policies “cannot be allowed to undermine” Ireland’s.

He said Ireland will “not provide a loophole for anybody else’s migration challenges” after it emerged that the majority of asylum seekers entering Ireland have crossed the border from Northern Ireland.

Mr Harris has asked Justice Minister Helen McEntee to bring legislation to cabinet on Tuesday to enable asylum seekers to be sent back to the UK.

However, a UK government source said the UK “won’t accept any asylum returns from the EU via Ireland” until the EU changes its policies.

Earlier this week, Ms McEntee told an Irish parliamentary committee that 80% of recent asylum seekers arriving in the Republic of Ireland came across the border from Northern Ireland.

On Sunday night the Irish Department of Justice confirmed that a meeting scheduled for Monday between the minister and Home Secretary James Cleverly had been postponed “and will be rescheduled in the near future”.

Ms McEntee had said she planned to raise migration with Mr Cleverly.

Legislation to revive the UK’s Rwanda policy became law on Thursday.

It aims to deter people from crossing the English Channel by sending some asylum seekers to the central African country.

No migrants have yet been sent from the UK.

The UK government had hoped for flights to take off by the spring but Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says this should now happen within 10 to 12 weeks.

Reuters A group of migrants on an inflatable dinghy in the English ChannelReuters

Legislation to revive the UK’s Rwanda policy became law on Thursday

On Sunday, Mr Harris attended a memorial event in County Monaghan to mark 50 years since the death of Fine Gael Senator Billy Fox, the only Oireachtas (parliament) member to be killed during the Troubles.

When questioned on migration, the taoiseach said he doesn’t intend to allow foreign policies to “affect the integrity of our own”.

“This country will not in any way shape or form provide a loophole for anybody else’s migration challenges – that’s very clear,” he told reporters.

“Anybody else’s migration policy can’t be allowed to undermine ours.”

A need for ‘much more’ police collaboration

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

The source added that the government was “fully focussed on operationalising our Rwanda scheme and will continue working with the French to stop the boats from crossing the Channel”.

Mr Harris said there had previously been a returns agreement in place between Ireland and the UK.

This agreement is now set to be updated when Ms McEntee brings forward legislative proposals next week.

The taoiseach added that while the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána (Irish police force) already collaborate on migration, there is now “a need for much more of that”.

Speaking to Irish broadcaster RTÉ on Saturday, Ms McEntee said: “There are many reasons why we have seen an increase in migration toward Ireland.

“What’s clear in the decision that the UK have taken in choosing Brexit, they have actually seen an increase in people seeking asylum in their country.”

She said her focus was making sure Ireland has “an effective immigration structure and system”.

“That’s why I’ll have emergency legislation at cabinet this week to make sure that we can effectively return people to the UK and that’s why I’ll be meeting with the Home Secretary [James Cleverly] to raise these issues on Monday.”

PA Ms McEnteePA

Helen McEntee will discuss migration with James Cleverly on Monday

In response to her comments, Tánaiste (Irish deputy PM) Micheál Martin said the UK government’s Rwanda policy meant people were “fearful” of staying in the UK and were crossing the border to the Republic so they would not be sent to Rwanda.

On Sky News on Sunday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was asked whether Mr Martin’s comments showed the UK was “exporting the problem”.

Mr Sunak replied: “The deterrent is – according to your comment – already having an impact, because people are worried about coming here and that demonstrates exactly what I’m saying: if people come to our country illegally, but know that they won’t be able to stay, they’re much less likely to come.”

It comes as Home Office figures showed some 500 migrants had crossed the English Channel over two days – with 141 people arriving on Friday and 359 on Saturday, in a total of 10 small boats.

It brings the number of arrivals on small boats to 7,167 so far this year, which is higher compared to the same period the year before.

Stephen Kinnock MP, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, said the figure represents the “blunt reality behind all of Rishi Sunak’s empty boasts”.

“More people have arrived by small boats so far this year than ever before and more people are having to be rescued,” Mr Kinnock said.

“What will it take for Rishi Sunak to wake up and realise that his plan is not working?”

If a Labour government were in place, Mr Kinnock added, there would be a returns and enforcement unit established “so those with no right to be in the UK are swiftly returned”.

‘Global problem’

Mr Sunak told Sky News that illegal migration was a “global problem” and said many countries were looking to replicate “third-country partnerships” similar to the agreement struck between the UK and Rwanda.

A No 10 spokesperson had previously said it was “too early to jump to specific conclusions about the impact of the act and treaty in terms of migrant behaviour”.

The Safety of Rwanda Act, which aims to avoid further legal challenges to the policy by declaring Rwanda a safe country, was approved by MPs and peers this week and passed into law on Thursday – although the plan could still be held up by court challenges.

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