Governments in Dublin and London play blame-game over asylum seekers

Trade union protest against racism in Dublin city centre, a few months ago. Workers congregate at a statue of Jim Larkin, a socialist trade union leader

Issues arising from Brexit once again dominate media coverage of relations between the London and Dublin governments.

This time the frictions, which have mounted to include the cancellation of Ministerial meetings, follow claims that the Rwanda asylum-seeker transportation policy being pursued by the Tories in Britain is driving them into the Republic of Ireland across the open land border with the north.

The common travel area

The agreement that led to the establishment of the Irish ‘Free State’ [26 of the 32 counties of Ireland] after the partition of Ireland in 1922, committed both sides to retain a common travel area (CTA) across Britain and Ireland. The measure was agreed at the time because it guaranteed the continued supply of low-cost Irish labour for the employer class in Britain and offered a social safety release valve of unemployed and radicalised youth to benefit the newly enthroned Irish national bourgeoisie.

Alongside the vital economic trade and business linkages between the two states existing at the time, the CTA was one of the main reasons that the UK and Ireland joined the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union (EU), together in 1974.

Transportation to Rwanda and the CTA

The 2016 UK Brexit referendum result was always likely to pose questions for the CTA but unlike other trade and customs matters, no side in the negotiations ever suggested that it should be discontinued. It did however revert to its pre-1974 limitations which meant that only UK and Irish citizens could travel freely.

More recently and following the implementation of the Windsor framework [to attempt to overcome Unionist opposition to the post Brexit trading arrangements], the governments have agreed that anyone with a visa to stay in either the UK or Ireland can continue to move freely throughout the CTA area; thereby avoiding the need to impose border controls north-south or east-west. Implicit in this arrangement was that those awaiting assessment of an asylum application in either jurisdiction could not enter the other and if they did – they would face repatriation.

This arrangement has not lasted long before being upended by the British government’s plan to for the mass transportation of asylum-seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. Even if they are successful, refugees will not be able to return to the UK but instead be offered permanent accommodation in the African country.

This is a desperate manoeuvre by the Conservative government to weaponise the migration issue and comes after years of the right-wing press highlighting the huge numbers of refugees ‘flooding into the country’.

Irish government response

Obviously, the threat of deportation to Rwanda is hugely concerning to anyone seeking asylum and holding a wish to secure a future for themselves, and potentially their families, in the UK. The Irish government claims that this is driving asylum seekers to the republic via the open border with Northern Ireland.

Recently Fine Gael Justice Minister Helen McEntee told an Oireachtas committee that 80% of recent asylum seekers arriving in the Republic of Ireland entered from Northern Ireland.

This unsubstantiated claim was then further complicated by last month’s judgement by the Irish High Court which means the government cannot designate the UK as a ‘safe country’ for the return of asylum-seekers due to the risk that they would send them to Rwanda.

In response, the Irish government has now passed legislation to bypass that ruling. But even with that their ability to repatriate asylum-seekers is uncertain. The British government has told the press that they will not accept asylum-seekers back from Ireland until France – also a EU member – accepts asylum-seekers back from the UK – and so the question is set to escalate.

Are Irish government claims true?

It is still unclear whether the ‘crisis’ has been engineered for political reasons by the government in Dublin just as it has been in London. It too faces a difficult election, with opposition party Sinn Féin remaining ahead in the poles. The immigration issue allows the beleaguered government parties to shift the focus of public attention onto migration and portray themselves as standing up to Brexit Britain.

No statistics have been offered to justify the 80% figure quoted by McEntee. Indeed Eurostat figures indicated that the number of asylum applications in the Republic of Ireland has spiked twice in the last two years – at the beginning of 2022 and at the end of 2023 – but in both cases commencing before key dates in the roll out of the UK Rwanda policy (i.e. when it was first announced and when the UK illegal migration act was enacted).

While the Irish government claims that 91% of asylum claims made since the start of 2024 have been made direct at the International Protection Office in Dublin rather than at ports or airports – that may or may not suggest more asylum seekers are entering the state from Northern Ireland. There are many other reasons for such a statistic and no comparator has been offered.

Indeed there is a mismatch in the nationality of asylum seekers in the Republic compared to those seeking asylum in the UK which appears to contradict the Irish government’s claims. In the Republic since the beginning of the year the top nationality claiming asylum is Nigeria followed by Bangladesh whereas that in the UK is Vietnamese followed by Afghan.

But even if the claims are true – the response of the Irish government marks a sharpening shift to the hard right. The government is highlighting unfounded fears to gain short-term political advantage over Sinn Fein.

Political opportunism

Fine Gael Taoiseach Simon Harris has jumped at the opportunity to bolster his hard line image with the processing of asylum claims transferring to the Department of Justice and freeing up 100 Garda who will then be transferred for north-south border control duties.

This move poses a significant challenge to Sinn Féin given the party in the north will need to oppose any hardening of the border but needs to avoid losing further support in the south to the extreme right.

Sinn Féin had no doubt foresaw such a squeeze and tried to pre-empt it at the end of last week by publicly challenging the inactivity of the Irish government on the issue. They did so without in any way setting out their own position; confirming once again the party’s innate opportunism.

Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill claimed that despite her role she had yet ‘to hear from the Tánaiste or Justice Minister’ and said that ‘to me that highlights maybe even underlies how disorganised they are in dealing with this issue’.

Her statement came only days after Sinn Féin spokesperson on social protection Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD released a video statement attacking open border migration policies – a red herring argument considering the fortress Europe EU migration policy in force in Ireland is nowhere near an open door policy – but a clear dog-whistle to the party’s disaffected support base.

Weaponising hate and fear of asylum seekers

The assertion by Irish Ministers that the UK government’s policy on transfer to Rwanda is displacing asylum-seekers to the Republic allows government parties a relatively cost-free way to adopt a strident hard right approach on the issue – at a time when the extreme right is attempting to stoke concerns on the issue.

Such claims also play into the hands of the British government who can use them to confirm the impact of their own anti-refugee policies. In both cases, the governments can portray themselves as standing up for national interests in the post-Brexit fallout.

It is likely that a longer-term resolution to the current impasse will be found. It is not in the interest of Dublin, London or Brussels that wider relationships are endangered – particularly given the wider geopolitical tensions existing with Russia.

However, it is also undoubted that governments in Britain and Ireland – and indeed the opposition parties in both jurisdictions – will continue to seek to play up concerns over the ‘migration crisis’ in advance of the upcoming general elections for their own political advantage.

Socialists stand opposed

We must ensure that workers see through highly reactionary, political machinations which seek only to distract from the wider economic and social failure of the capitalist governments.

The weaponisation of fear and even hate of asylum-seekers and refugees by mainstream bourgeois politicians is not a new phenomenon but it remains an insidious and inherently dangerous one.

By pandering to the far right and issuing dog-whistles, the parties only add credibility and confidence to the growing and increasingly violent hard right. Perhaps even more dangerously in the long-term, it also create the grounds for the further rightward shift of the mainstream parties and the normalisation of xenophobic and racist politics.

The current conjuncture of capitalism is witnessing an accelerated process of de-globalisation and the rise of heightened tensions between geopolitical blocs. This was a possibility envisioned for some time by the CWI, at a time when many others discounted it.

Rising trade barriers and obstacles to the free movement of workers go hand in hand. They are both attempts to fool and divide workers to better cut across any socialist challenge to the capitalist and imperialist system.

The task for socialists must be to call out such reactionary politics and instead seek to unite workers behind a political programme offering a genuine socialist and internationalist alternative for all workers, regardless of where they come from. This entails campaigning for homes at affordable prices for all, a living wage, and proper funding of public services and infrastructure.

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May 2024