Hundreds of people were refused entry at Irish airports last year on the grounds that they may travel onwards to the UK, according to previously unreleased figures obtained by VICE News.
The figures for 2019 reveal that 525 people were explicitly refused entry (“leave to land”) solely or partially on the grounds that they may travel onwards to Britain or Northern Ireland, and may not meet UK immigration rules. A further 505 people were refused entry on these grounds in 2018.
Brazilian and US citizens were the top nationalities refused both years, counting for over 40 percent of refusals.
The role Ireland plays in securing its “common travel area” with Britain, and the impact this has on migrants, is a long-standing but often unscrutinised policy. The issue has gained prominence since the 2016 Brexit referendum, with questions about how the UK would maintain an open border with Ireland, while also “taking back control”, coming to the fore.
This sensitivity was illustrated in 2016, after the Brexit referendum, when a senior UK minister’s proposal to move UK immigration controls to Irish airports for Non-EU travellers was criticised by politicians from all major Irish parties as “a non-runner” “ridiculous” and akin to Trump’s promise that Mexico would pay for “the wall”.
However, the VICE News figures shed light on how much Britain’s borders are already being secured at Irish airports.
"It is very concerning that hundreds of people are being prevented from entering Ireland as a result of UK immigration rules,” said Paul Murphy, an opposition member of parliament with the RISE party in Dublin. “Under the right-wing Tory government, Britain is adopting immigration rules which are more and more racist. The fact that they are de facto then applied to travellers into Ireland is outrageous."
The possibility that someone might continue to the UK was the fourth most common ground for refusal into Ireland, behind issues such as invalid visas or passports, or the catch-all reason of attempting to enter Ireland for “purposes other than those expressed”.
“The consequences of a refusal are more than just being turned around from Ireland. The record can stalk a person for years – to be declared on every future visa application, and impacting any future plans to enter Ireland or the UK,” said Fiona Finn, CEO of Irish migrant rights charity Nasc.
Migrant rights charities have long raised concerns about the lack of safeguards, including the lack of an appeals process. An entry refusal “is often a subjective decision by an Immigration Officer at the border without adequate oversight”, Ms Finn said.
Refusals at the Irish borders “continue to be one of the least transparent elements of our immigration system”, she added. “By its very nature, those who most need help and assistance are those precluded from accessing it.”
An American man made local and international headlines when he was detained at Dublin Airport in September of last year. Ryan Volrath was travelling through Ireland en route to a planned ten-day trip to see his wife and young children in Omagh, Northern Ireland. The couple had already been forced to live apart for over a year at the time of the incident, due to being unable to meet the stringent requirements of the UK’s family visa policies. When Mr Volrath arrived at the airport he was denied entry, detained overnight in a police station and deported the next morning.
A statement from the law firm representing the couple said that, with an impending Brexit, “Irish authorities are now operating a much more rigid and aggressive regime regarding entry to the North of Ireland, via Dublin airport. The UK's pervasive hostile environment policy is being mirrored in the Irish state.”
The shadow of UK immigration policy can also be felt by those applying for visas to visit Ireland. People seeking to visit or move to Ireland may be denied a visa if they have an “adverse immigration history” in the UK. This can range from previously being deported to simply having had a visa refused by UK authorities in the past.
Even if there is no previous history with the UK authorities, visas can be refused if Irish authorities believe “that the applicant may branch into the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK”.
Ireland’s Department of Justice, which oversees immigration matters, said data on the number of visas refused on these grounds was not available. However, an examination of visa refusals for one week alone in 2018 show these reasons cited in 10 percent of cases.
“If someone applies for a visa to the UK and is refused, and they [later] apply for a visa to Ireland – even if they fully disclose the visa refusal – they will probably still be refused,” Wendy Lyon, an immigration lawyer in Dublin who has dealt with such cases, told VICE News.
Ms Lyon said that “close to 100 percent” of people “who have a previous visa refusal to the UK are probably going to be refused a visa to Ireland, at least in the first instance”. This can apply to people who “are clearly applying to join their family members in Ireland”.
While it can be possible to appeal, such processes in general can take months, if not years.
What the impact of Brexit and the UK’s increasingly restrictive approach to immigration will be on Ireland is still not known. But, Ms Lyon told VICE News, “Certainly, if the UK is cracking down on borders, it’s not going to make things easier for people trying to get to Ireland. We can be pretty sure about that.”
The shared border policies have always been politically sensitive, especially given the colonial history between the two countries. Historian Piaras Mac Éinrí has noted that, in the 1950s, when the first agreements were put in place to allow for similar immigration policies, “Irish officials went to some lengths to conceal the background to the negotiation.”
Responding to the new figures, Belfast-based human rights organisation the Committee on the Administration of Justice raised concerns, saying “this whole policy area is shrouded in secrecy”.
When the NGO previously sought details about the work of the UK-Ireland Common Travel Area Forum, which has oversight of these matters, they received documents through a Freedom of Information request that had been “redacted to the point of being useless”, with almost every page completely blacked out.
“The sub-contracting of UK immigration controls to Irish officials is going to be highly politically controversial,” Úna Boyd, the organisation’s Immigration Project Coordinator, told VICE News, “but that does not mean the standards of transparency in a democratic society regarding policy that fundamentally impacts on rights can just be set aside.”
“There is a real issue here with policy being developed in secret without scrutiny and without oversight mechanisms; policy which then has direct and significant impacts on individuals,” she said. “And, of course, Brexit adds a further layer of complexity.”
Common Travel Area policies have until now focused on controlling non-EU citizens. But from January of 2021, one state (Ireland) will retain freedom of movement for EU nationals, while the other (the UK) will control their movement.
While a point of contention in London has concerned those who could theoretically cross the land border onwards to Northern Ireland or Britain, the UK has committed to continue to implement the Common Travel Area in a way that does impinge in any way on the freedom of movement of European citizens.
A report by academics in Northern Ireland thus raised concerns that, in lieu of politically undesirable checks at airports or on the land border, there will be an “intensification” of in-country “hostile environment” checks by employers and landlords, especially in Northern Ireland, which risks being turned into “one big border”.
A spokesperson for Ireland’s Department of Justice said:
“In order to maintain the integrity of the Common Travel Area [CTA], co-operation between Ireland and the United Kingdom on matters relating to immigration issues is essential. Both Ireland and the United Kingdom may refuse entry for non-EEA nationals on the basis that an individual intends to travel to the other jurisdiction where the individual concerned would not be acceptable for admission in the other State. In deciding on a refusal under these grounds, Irish immigration officials look at all the evidence available before reaching a decision.
“This is a central feature of the operation of the CTA ensuring the integrity of the principles underpinning the arrangement whilst securing the external CTA border.”
“These arrangements will continue post-Brexit”, the spokesperson added.
A spokesperson for the UK Home Office said:
“The Government has agreed with the EU that the UK and Ireland can continue to make arrangements between themselves with regards to travel under the Common Travel Area, which predates membership of the EU.
“We continue to work closely with Ireland to identify and tackle those who seek to abuse common travel arrangements, including through operational co-operation and data sharing.”
Neither the Home Office nor the Department of Justice answered a question on whether UK immigration officials had been at Irish ports/airports, or whether they would be in the future.