Sunak Says ‘Not Interested’ in Asylum Return Deal With Ireland

(Bloomberg) -- UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he is “not interested” in a deal with Ireland for asylum seekers to be returned to the UK.

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Sunak was speaking after British and Irish ministers held talks in London Monday amid an emerging dispute over migration triggered by claims of an up-tick in the number of asylum-seekers crossing into Ireland from Northern Ireland.

“We’re not going to accept returns from the EU via Ireland when the EU doesn’t accept returns back to France where illegal migrants are coming from,” Sunak told ITV news.

Sunak’s remarks underscore the hard line the prime minister is seeking to take on immigration issues as he seeks to rebuild support for his poll-trailing Conservative Party among voters. The premier must hold a general election by the end of January, and this month passed flagship legislation designed to enable the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.

In a potential sign of growing tensions between Britain and Ireland on the migration issue, Home Secretary James Cleverly pulled out of a meeting with Helen McEntee, Ireland’s justice minister, at short notice.

However, Sunak’s spokesman, Dave Pares, put the cancellation down to “diary issues.” Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, meanwhile, played down the idea of friction over the issue at a joint press conference in Westminster on Monday following a regular summit between the two countries.

Heaton-Harris said there was “no way that we would want to upset our relationship with Ireland,” the Press Association reported. Martin, for his part, said that any agreements on returns would need to be “mutual” and “reciprocal,” PA reported. The two governments issued a joint commitment to “protect the common travel area from abuse,” he said.

Read More: UK’s Sunak Says Rwanda Flights Plan Is Having a Deterrent Effect

The fallout began when the Irish government said more migrants are crossing into the Republic from Northern Ireland, potentially to avoid being caught up in Sunak’s Rwanda deportation plan. Though the numbers involved are unclear, the row has the potential to evolve into a wider diplomatic argument dragging in the European Union as well.

That’s because immigration touches pressure points at the heart of recent tensions between the UK, EU and Ireland. The open border on the island of Ireland, which asylum-seekers are now apparently crossing, was the key sticking point during years of Brexit negotiations following the UK’s vote to split from its biggest trading partner in 2016.

Meanwhile, Sunak has pursued the Rwanda policy as a way of deterring record number of migrants reaching the UK in small boats from France. His government complains that France will not allow the UK — given it is no longer an EU member — to return migrants, while joint efforts to tackle the people-smuggling gangs organizing the crossings are having limited results.

It’s why when the Irish government said it is considering how it could return the asylum-seekers to the UK, British officials responded that the UK won’t accept any unless France also agreed to reciprocate.

The dispute may have some way to run, given the politics on both sides. McEntee said she’s planning to bring emergency legislation to allow Ireland to return people, while on Sunday, Irish premier Simon Harris said his country would “not provide a loophole for anybody else’s migration challenges.”

The timing is fortuitous for Sunak, given the questions about how effective his Rwanda plan will be. He said over the weekend the arrivals in Ireland are proof that the threat of deportation is already working as a deterrent.

Why the UK’s Plan to Stop Migrants Depends on Rwanda: QuickTake

Yet a diplomatic spat also carries risk for the British pleader, who regards the repairing of relations with the EU as a major achievement of his 18-month tenure. It led to an agreement on how to treat Northern Ireland after Brexit, keeping the border with the Republic open and minimizing disruption to internal UK trade.

As polls show Britons becoming more skeptical about Brexit, Sunak could find that allowing a dispute to develop that prods at so many of the pressure points he has tried to move past could backfire with voters — even if it keeps his critics on the right of his Conservative Party happy.

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