Immigration: Rishi Sunak announces 1,000 more asylum seekers will be housed on barges

The Prime Minister said his plan to “stop the boats” was starting to have an impact but accepted there was “more work to do”

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Rishi Sunak has announced the government will house a further 1,000 asylum seekers on barges - as part of his plan to reduce small boat crossings in the English Channel.

Speaking at a news conference in Kent, the Prime Minister confirmed the Home Office had secured two more barges in addition to the Bibby Stockholm - which is due to be moored in Dorset in the next fortnight. The local Conservative-run council previously said it had “serious reservations” and was considering legal action.

What did the PM say?

Sunak spoke in Dover in a speech organised by Downing Street to set out the government’s progress in “stopping the boats” - one of five key pledges the PM made at the start of 2023.

He said in the five months since he promised to address the issue, small boat crossings to the UK were “down 20% compared to last year - the first time since this problem began that arrivals between January and May have fallen compared to the year before”.

Sunak insisted the plan was starting to have an impact, thanks to recent agreements with countries like Albania to return migrants. He admitted the measures were “tough” - but said he made no apology for that. “We cannot allow our generosity of spirit to be used as a weapon against us or against those who are being pushed to risk their lives in the channel by criminal gangs”, he stressed.

Before his speech Rishi Sunak went on board a Border Agency cutter off Dover Before his speech Rishi Sunak went on board a Border Agency cutter off Dover
Before his speech Rishi Sunak went on board a Border Agency cutter off Dover

He also accepted more people were likely to cross the Channel over the summer - and said ministers were “not complacent”.

Finally, Sunak confirmed the government had leased two more barges - capable of holding 1,000 asylum seekers - to reduce Home Office spending on hotels.

Where will the barges be based?

The PM said he’d “wait to announce” where the two new barges would be located - but revealed that the Bibby Stockholm, a three-storey vessel earmarked to hold 500 asylum seekers, was due to moor in the Dorset town of Portland in the next two weeks.

In April, Dorset Council - which is Tory-controlled - said it has “serious reservations” about the decision to house it there, because of the pressure it would put on local services. Sunak said the government carried out “extensive engagement with local communities” when plans like these were put forward.

Thousands more asylum seekers are set to be moved to former RAF bases at Wethersfield in Essex and Scampton in Lincolnshire despite local opposition there too. Sunak confirmed today nearly 3,000 migrants would be based at the two sites “by the autumn”.


by Tom Hourigan

Rishi Sunak spoke for just 10 minutes in Dover in what was billed as an “update” on his small boats pledge rather than the announcement of a grand new strategy. Deliberately forgoing a jacket and tie, the PM was projecting a “sleeves-rolled-up” image (without actually having his sleeves rolled up) of a government working to deliver on the promises it made in January.

His claim that the number of migrants making the perilous crossing across the Channel has fallen is true: 7,610 people have reached the UK in small boats so far in 2023, compared with 9,984 in the first five months of last year. The numbers are often weather dependent, but Sunak batted away suggestions poor conditions were behind the drop - stressing that crossings elsewhere in Europe were “up by almost a third” in the same period.

The PM said this - and the fact 1,800 migrants had been returned to Albania in six months - showed his strategy was working. But he still hasn’t spelled out what success looks like. Does “stopping the boats” mean stopping the crossings entirely and bringing the number down to zero? Sunak won’t say. Just as we saw with last month’s net migration figures (a separate set of numbers looking mainly at the number of people coming to Britain legally), he’s extremely reluctant to set targets because all his recent precedessors failed to meet them.

That means he can paint any fall in small boat crossings as a success - but leaves him open to the charge it’s not enough.

How have charities and human rights groups reacted?

Amnesty International called on the government to scrap the use of barges to house asylum seekers - describing it as a “terrible idea” that “should be abandoned”.

The human rights group’s chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said: “Confining people who’ve escaped terror, torture and other cruelty in locations which will inevitably lead to their social isolation is immoral and potentially unlawful”.

“The giant barges project is being used to distract from the urgent need to fairly and efficiently decide people’s asylum claims, something this government is still failing to do”.

The British Red Cross agreed, saying if ministers were “serious about improving the asylum system”, they would “focus on processing people’s claims quickly and correctly”.

What have opposition parties said?

Speaking ahead of the PM’s speech, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Sunak promising measures to tackle small boat crossings was “like Groundhog Day”.

He told reporters in Somerset: “I think everybody wants to make sure that we stop the boats, we don’t want people making that dangerous journey. All we’ve really had from the government though is the announcement of a policy that doesn’t work and then the reannouncement of the same policy, essentially”.

“Meanwhile that’s costing a fortune for the taxpayer and there’s this growing sense of frustration”.

The Liberal Democrats called the speech “cynical spin” and said “the asylum backlog was still at a record high, with people waiting longer than ever before”.