Non-Irish EU citizens living in the Republic will have to apply online for pre-travel clearance from the UK in order to cross the Border under proposed new British immigration laws.
Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, they will be required to apply for a US-style visa waiver known as an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) before entering the UK, including when crossing the land Border into Northern Ireland.
It will also apply to citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA) living here, which includes people from Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.
Non-British or non-Irish citizens from other countries, outside the EU/EEA, which previously did not require a visa to enter the UK, will now need an ETA.
The Bill is part of a wider, post-Brexit overhaul of the UK’s immigration laws and includes provisions on asylum seekers, nationality and immigration control.
It was passed in the House of Commons on Wednesday and will now proceed to the House of Lords.
An amendment tabled by the Alliance Party, SDLP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats to exempt travel on the island of Ireland from the requirement for an ETA was not selected for a vote.
“This adds extra layers of bureaucracy and creates new legal risk and jeopardy for people crossing on land journeys into Northern Ireland, ” the Alliance MP Stephen Farry said.
The UK’s minister for immigration, Kevin Foster, was questioned by MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday on the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU on immigration checks within the Common Travel Area (CTA).
He played down the potential impact of the change, describing the ETA as a “simple online fill-in form, and once you’ve done it you can fairly easily renew it as well”.
Those who needed the form, he said, “would probably get used to the idea they would need to apply for something in terms of the UK”.
Belfast-based human rights organisation the Committee on the Administration of Justice warned the new rules would “create a hard border” for people who had previously enjoyed freedom of movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and would have a particular impact on those living in Border areas.
The committee wrote on Wednesday to the human rights and equality commissioners on both sides of the Border to highlight their concerns over the proposed legislation, saying it would have a “unique detrimental impact on the lives of persons resident in Border areas who need to enter Northern Ireland for essential purposes” such as work, education or visiting family.
It could also affect the ability of members of the migrant community to take part freely in cross-Border projects and programmes, the committee said.
The organisation warned there was a “high risk” people would not be aware of the requirement for an ETA and would therefore cross the Border without the document, leaving themselves open to prosecution and imprisonment.
Daniel Holder, deputy director of the committee, said “on the basis of current practice we would worry that there will be selective enforcement by UK Border Force on the basis of racial discrimination”.
At the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee earlier on Wednesday, Mr Foster confirmed the change in the law. He replied “yes” when Mr Farry asked him to confirm whether “bearing in mind we now have a cohort of people who have free movement across the EU into Ireland but no longer have free movement into the United Kingdom, that cohort of people will require an ETA to travel into the UK including to travel into Northern Ireland?”
The scheme is due to come into effect in 2025 but it is unclear how it will be enforced, what it will cost or how long an application will take.
Mr Foster said documents would “absolutely not” be checked at the land border and enforcement would be “proportionate”.
South Belfast MP Claire Hanna of the SDLP said it could create “a climate of uncertainty. Essentially we’re saying to people: you won’t get caught.” She questioned whether people might arbitrarily have to produce the document if they encountered the authorities in other circumstances, for example if witness to a crime or involved in a car accident.
Mr Farry raised concerns about the practicalities for people in Border communities of having to apply in advance for the document, and the difficulties of raising awareness about the scheme so that people did not unwittingly break the law.
“Every day there are tens of thousands of people who cross the Border into Northern Ireland, including people who are non-British, non-Irish … Sometimes these journeys aren’t planned three days in advance,” he said.