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Northern Ireland is already a ‘sanctuary city’ in the UK – it could yet become one in Europe

If Brussels were to allow Rwanda-type schemes elsewhere in the EU, London could say this permitted a similar scheme across the UK, yet a court in Belfast could disagree

Keir Starmer, the British Labour leader, promised last Saturday to “scrap” the UK’s Rwanda asylum scheme on “day one” if his party wins the next general election, as it is universally expected to do. Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, said on Monday the next election will be “in the second half of this year”.

No forced removals to Rwanda have occurred or may ever occur. The scheme’s impact on Ireland, North and South, could be a bizarre interlude that will blow over shortly with no lasting effect. But that is hardly guaranteed.

Starmer may hesitate or change his mind if the scheme is seen to be deterring migrants, a perception encouraged by complaints from the Irish Government.

In his comments on Saturday, the Labour leader unambiguously vowed to stop all flights to Rwanda, denouncing them as a “gimmick” and a “waste of money”. However, he did not pledge to repeal the legislation underpinning the scheme, which creates a general power to remove asylum seekers to a “safe third country”. This seems likely to be left on the books, leaving Labour the option of a less gimmicky alternative.


In Northern Ireland, that option has been pulled up by the roots. Monday’s ruling on the Rwanda scheme at Belfast High Court has disapplied the underpinning legislation, finding it incompatible with the Windsor Framework. Sunak responded by announcing an appeal, which is unlikely to be heard before the election. He might as well have announced he would do nothing.

So Northern Ireland has become a “sanctuary city” within the UK, offering protection against the Rwanda scheme and any future scheme like it.

An even stranger possibility is on the horizon. Nineteen EU member states have formed a group to lobby the European Commission to permit Rwanda-type schemes, and for the EU to implement one itself. In theory, a change in EU immigration policy would permit the same change in Northern Ireland. Reality is more complicated.

The Windsor Framework protects rights beyond EU law, while EU immigration policy does not always meet international rights standards. This means Brussels could allow Rwanda-type schemes, London could say this permitted a similar scheme across the UK, yet a court in Belfast could disagree. Northern Ireland would then become one of the few places in Europe where asylum seekers would not face removal to a third country.

Some British officials believe Monday’s ruling will influence movement of people; some legal experts and rights groups find the idea implausible. Anyone moving from Britain to Northern Ireland to evade the British asylum system could forfeit entitlements to housing and financial support – presumably a major deterrent, given the still-tiny risk of being sent to Rwanda.

On the other hand, it may only take a few people to start a pattern, and even fewer unsupported people to cause visible problems. The UK Home Office admits it cannot find 5,000 individuals it wants to send to Rwanda. If only two dozen were frightened or poorly-advised enough to end up on the streets of Belfast, they would double the city’s population of rough sleepers.

That would be widely reported, deterring others from making the journey, but it would also spread awareness of Northern Ireland as a place where asylum seekers cannot be removed. This could be exploited by people smugglers, human traffickers, paramilitaries and other organised crime gangs.

It should be noted it is perfectly possible to arrive in Northern Ireland without transiting Britain, via the Republic or scores of international air routes, then claim asylum correctly with the Home Office in Belfast and receive housing and financial support – although housing for asylum seekers in Northern Ireland is already in short supply.

But nobody needs to arrive to cause political problems. The DUP has immediately come under attack from unionist rivals for claiming it has reduced the Windsor Framework to minor matters of shipping paperwork, under its January deal with the Conservatives to restore devolution. The DUP has gone on the defensive, saying it warned the British government about the Rwanda scheme but London “chose” not to breach the framework. None of this is good for the stability of a freshly revived Stormont.

Unionists are concerned about passport checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. While republicans may relish that prospect, Sinn Féin realises it would be stupid to be seen wishing for immigration problems. Responding to Monday’s ruling, the party soberly intoned it wants a system that is “fair, effective, enforced and human rights compliant”.

Starmer’s official alternative to the Rwanda scheme is to spend the savings from scrapping it on MI5 and National Crime Agency operations against illegal immigration, using existing and new anti-terrorist legislation. Such legislation already permits internal UK passport checks, even within Britain. Whether or not this works, it has the advantage of being slightly uncomfortable for both sides in Northern Ireland.