Ireland Threatens to Return Asylum Seekers to U.K., Sparking Diplomatic Squabble

Britain’s newly ratified plan to put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda has drawn objections from human rights groups, British and European courts, the House of Lords and even some members of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party.

To that list, add another aggrieved party: Ireland.

The Irish government said last week that asylum seekers in Britain who fear being deported to Rwanda are instead traveling to Ireland. It is drafting emergency legislation to send them back to Britain, triggering a clash with its neighbor, which said it would refuse to accept them.

Irish officials estimate that 80 percent of recent applicants for asylum crossed into the country via Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and with which the Republic of Ireland has an open border. That suggests that Britain’s vow to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is already having something of a deterrent effect, which was Mr. Sunak’s sales pitch for the policy.

But it comes at the expense of Ireland, which is already struggling to absorb an influx of refugees from Ukraine and elsewhere, and has seen violent clashes over immigration erupt in small towns and major cities. On Sunday, Ireland’s prime minister, Simon Harris, said, “This country will not in any way, shape or form provide a loophole for anybody else’s migration challenges.”

“Other countries can decide how they wish to advance migration,” said Mr. Harris, who became prime minister earlier this month. “From an Irish perspective, we intend to have a firm rules-based system where rules are in place, where rules are in force, where rules are seen to be enforced.”

British officials, however, countered on Monday that they would not accept any asylum seekers from Ireland, a European Union member, unless they had a broader agreement with the E.U. to return them to France, another E.U. member, from where many refugees set off for Britain in small boats across the English Channel.

“Of course we’re not going to do that,” Mr. Sunak said to ITV News about accepting returnees from Ireland. “I’m determined to get our Rwanda scheme up and running because I want a deterrent.” He added, “I make absolutely no apology for doing everything I can to tackle illegal migration.”

The Rwanda policy has unexpectedly put the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic back in the spotlight, echoing the tensions between Britain and Ireland after Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016. The Republic of Ireland fought to keep an open land border with Northern Ireland, which necessitated complex negotiations between London and Brussels over trade arrangements in the North.

After years of friction, Mr. Sunak last year struck a deal with the European Union, known as the Windsor Framework, which finally seemed to defuse the issue. But Britain’s abrupt cancellation on Sunday of a meeting between its home secretary, James Cleverly, and Ireland’s minister for justice, Helen McEntee, added to the sense of a fresh diplomatic crisis. A meeting of lower-level British and Irish officials produced only a vague agreement to “monitor this issue closely.”

“It’s something that needs to be solved, and I don’t see any easy solution,” said Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to Britain. “It clearly isn’t workable if a very large number of refugees are going through the U.K. and coming down here through Northern Ireland.”

The problem is, political pressures on both sides militate against resolving the issue. For Mr. Sunak, who lobbied for months against legal challenges to pass the Rwanda plan, the diversion of asylum seekers to Ireland is proof that his policy is working. Far from taking back these people, he has vowed to round up thousands of those still in Britain and put them on planes to Rwanda.

Mr. Harris, analysts in Dublin said, is under pressure to act firmly because the swelling numbers of asylum seekers, combined with Ireland’s acute housing shortage, are causing social unrest. Last week, protesters in County Wicklow clashed with the police over proposed accommodations for refugees. A riot rooted in anti-immigrant hatred convulsed parts of Dublin last fall.

“The protests have become increasingly ugly and violent, orchestrated by groups that see Ireland as fertile ground,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. “The politicians are under pressure to be seen as doing more, and they’re trying to reduce the ground for anti-immigration forces.”

The tensions are even altering Ireland’s political landscape. For example, the poll ratings of the main opposition party, Sinn Fein, have fallen in recent months because of criticism that it is not hard-line enough on immigration.

Sinn Fein’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, criticized the Irish government for failing to level with residents about how immigration would affect their towns and cities.

“You need rules and regulations,” Ms. McDonald said at a recent briefing for journalists in London. “Particularly in more deprived areas, where services are poor, they feel the struggle all the more when they consider the people coming in.”

Mr. Sunak predicted that Britain’s use of Rwanda to process asylum applications would be copied by other countries. But critics say that would pose a thorny challenge to the global legal system for protecting refugees. If more countries outsource the processing of asylum seekers, they may simply end up displacing the flow of refugees to their nearest neighbors, as Britain has.

Mr. Harris, moreover, faces some of the same legal obstacles that dogged Mr. Sunak in his quest to enact the Rwanda policy. Ireland’s high court has ruled that the government cannot designate Britain as a “safe third country” and return asylum seekers there, because of the risk that Britain would send them to Rwanda.

Britain’s Supreme Court struck down an earlier version of the Rwanda legislation because it determined that Rwanda was not a safe country. Mr. Sunak then signed a treaty with the Rwandan government and revised the legislation, essentially overruling the court. Parliament passed that law last week.

Immigration experts in Ireland have expressed doubts about the government’s claim that 80 percent of recent asylum applicants crossed the border from Northern Ireland. Some, they said, could have arrived at airports or seaports in the Irish Republic and not immediately applied for asylum status.

Still, said Nick Henderson, the chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council, “If people are moving to Ireland from the U.K. in numbers, it should be viewed in the context that the U.K. is not a safe country for people seeking protection.”