Asylum chaos triggers fresh tensions over how to manage Ireland’s post-Brexit border


Two weeks ago, the Irish police force cleared a Dublin encampment of around 200 tents occupied by asylum seekers. The migrants were bussed to sites on the fringes of the city, where the government said they would be provided with the food, sanitation and security they were lacking on the streets of Dublin’s elegant Georgian quarter. This operation was repeated a week later, against another informal encampment of around 100 tents which had appeared along the banks of the Grand Canal.

Ireland is struggling to house asylum seekers amid an unprecedented housing and homelessness crisis, partly driven by the country’s latest economic boom increasing the demand for new homes. Dublin is a key location for major multinationals looking for tax breaks. Ireland experienced a 12% GDP growth rate in 2022 compared to a Euro area average of 3.5%.

Dublin has blamed the recent uptick in asylum seekers on the UK’s Rwanda policy. Ireland’s justice minister Helen McEntee claimed that 80% of new arrivals were entering via the open border with Northern Ireland, suggesting they were hoping to avoid being sent to Rwanda. Rishi Sunak has been happy to promote this, arguing that it shows the policy is having its intended deterrent effect.

The claim, however, has led to a spat within the Irish government. The deputy prime minister, Micheál Martin of the coalition partner Fianna Fáil party, countered that the claim was not based on any empirical evidence. This has led to debate on the accuracy of the claims, which can’t be conclusively verified with the available data.

Newly-selected Taoiseach Simon Harris initially backed his Fine Gael party colleague McEntee, stating that Ireland would “not provide a loophole” for any other country’s immigration challenges. These comments reflect rapidly hardening Irish attitudes towards the question of irregular international migration.

In an effort to control the situation, the Irish government threatened to rush 100 extra Gardaí to secure the border and enforce checks. But they swiftly retreated from this as Sunak chided that there could no “cherry-picking” of international agreements. Here, the prime minister was referring to the Good Friday Agreement, which requires maintaining an open border on the island.

Ironically, Sunak may also now be accused of cherry-picking in suggesting that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement were never meant to apply to illegal or irregular migration.

A judge in Northern Ireland’s high court has ruled that parts of the UK’s Illegal Migration Act – a key part of its policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda – cannot apply in Northern Ireland. The judge said the law is incompatible with the Windsor framework, the post-Brexit arrangement for Northern Ireland. The framework mostly deals with trade, but also upholds human rights provisions in the Good Friday Agreement.

The ruling is the latest example of how, in attempting to strengthen its borders, the UK government has overlooked the longstanding complications of the Irish border.

Tensions around migration

The fact that Dublin was so blindsided by recent flows of migrants reflects an underlying political and ideological complacency about what an open border in Ireland was supposed to be for. I have discussed these issues further in a recent paper.

The Brexit debates focused on flows of goods and people across the island of Ireland, with the historical context of intense political violence on the border. Due to its peripheral European geography, Ireland has largely been insulated from migration flows and pressures from outside of Europe, and did not envisage the sort of backdoor scenario that now appears to be taking place.

The reaction, both by politicians and members of the public, highlights tensions around migration that have been simmering for years, and which exploded into international view with the worst public disorder the capital has faced since independence with the riots of November last year.

Ireland has experienced rapid ethnic diversification in recent years, with one in five people living there being born outside the country. In the UK, the figure for those foreign-born is only 14.1%. The most recent polling shows that half the population now wants migrant checkpoints on the land border. This increases to 52% of Sinn Féin voters, whose primary political objective is a united Ireland.

Concerns over the Irish border remain complex since Brexit.
Javier Etxezarreta/EPA-EFE

The latest spike in migrants seeking to call Ireland home has clearly caught politicians on the hop. In the process of looking for someone or somewhere to blame, it has refocused attention on the border in a way that would not have been predicted a few years ago.

During the Brexit negotiations, efforts were made to avoid a hard border at all costs. Harris’ predecessor Leo Varadkar was steadfast in his commitment to an open frontier, arguing that controls and security apparatus could lead to a return to the violence of the Troubles.

The sight of protesters in Dublin arguing to “close the borders” is an uncomfortable contradiction with this history. And, while it might seem an extreme position, the distribution and scale of wider anti-immigrant protests across the country means that this sentiment can no longer be seriously dismissed as existing on the political margins.

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