UK asylum crisis: government leases barge to house 500 migrants off Dorset coast
The government has hired the Bibby Stockholm barge, a 222 bedroom, three-storey vessel, to house hundreds of migrants and save on hotel costs
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The British Red Cross has called for a more compassionate and supportive environment for people fleeing their homes, as the UK government says it will house 500 asylum seekers in a barge off the Dorset coast.
The Home Office confirmed on Wednesday (5 April) it has hired the three-storey, 222 bedroom Bibby Stockholm barge, which will provide “basic and functional accommodation” and 24/7 security.
The barge will have healthcare provision and catering facilities onboard, and will be in operation in Portland for at least 18 months. The Home Office is in discussion with other ports with the aim of deploying more vessels.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended the use of the barge, insisting it would save taxpayer money. On a local election campaign trip to Peterborough he said: “I think everybody knows one of my five priorities is to stop the boats". The Conservatives' controversial Illegal Migration Bill is currently making its way through the House of Commons.
"As part of that, we’ve got to reduce the pressure on hotels in communities up and down the country," Sunak said. "We are spending, as a country, £6 million a day housing illegal asylum seekers in hotels – that can’t be right."
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said: “The Home Secretary and I have been clear that the use of expensive hotels to house those making unnecessary and dangerous journeys must stop.
“We will not elevate the interests of illegal migrants over the British people we are elected to serve," he said. “We have to use alternative accommodation options, as our European neighbours are doing – including the use of barges and ferries to save the British taxpayer money and to prevent the UK becoming a magnet for asylum shoppers in Europe.
Jenrick continued: “All accommodation will meet our legal obligations and we will work closely with the local community to address their concerns, including through financial support.”
The barge plan has also attracted some backlash from the Conservative camp, with Tory-run Dorset Council and local Conservative MP Richard Drax considering launching legal action to prevent the barge being docked near the seaside resort of Weymouth.
In a statement, the council said it had “serious reservations” about Portland Port’s suitability as a location for the barge. “We are aware of the Home Secretary’s announcement this afternoon, confirming that the Home Office wishes to proceed with its plans to house asylum seekers in floating accommodation at Portland Port.
“Dorset Council’s position has not changed. We still have serious reservations about the appropriateness of Portland Port in this scenario and we remain opposed to the proposals... There are a number of questions which the Home Secretary’s announcement does not address, we will continue to press the Home Office for answers and await further information.”
The Home Office has not set out the cost of the lease agreement for the vessel yet, but estimates have put the overall price tag of the charter and the berthing at more than £20,000 a day.
The move has already been slammed by human rights advocates. The British Red Cross warned that barges “do not offer the supportive environment” people fleeing their homes need.
Executive director of strategy and communications Christina Marriott said: “People seeking asylum need stability, to be able to maintain contact with their loved ones and to feel safe.
“Docked barges, which are isolated from the wider community, do not offer the supportive environment that people coping with the trauma of having to flee their homes need," she said. “People are being housed in inappropriate accommodation because of the asylum backlog, with slow decision-making on cases leaving 160,000 stuck in the system and living in limbo."
Ms Marriott continued: “We need a more effective and compassionate asylum system, one that supports people to integrate into a community so they can find safety and live in dignity.”
The Red Cross has previously spoken out against Home Office plans to house refugees in military sites. Jenrick last week unveiled plans to house thousands of asylum seekers in disused military bases in order to accommodate their “essential living needs and nothing more”.
Alex Fraser, the British Red Cross’s UK director for refugee support, told NationalWorld that military sites could “re-traumatise” vulnerable men and women.
He said: “We know from our work supporting people seeking asylum that these sites will be entirely inappropriate and will lead to significant suffering. People who have been forced to flee their homes have already experienced unimaginable trauma. They need stability, support, to be able to maintain contact with their loved ones, and to feel safe.”
Yvette Cooper, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, responding to the Home Office leasing a barge to accommodate migrants, said the announcement was "a sign of the Conservatives' total failure to clear the asylum backlog, tackle the criminal smuggling gangs or get any kind of grip on the system".
"This barge is in addition to hotels, not instead of them, and is still more than twice as expensive as normal asylum accommodation," she said. "It will house just 0.3% of the current Tory backlog which has sky-rocketed and is continuing to grow under the Conservatives.
"Until the Government takes serious action to clear the backlog, this problem is going to keep getting worse with more people in costly accommodation, not less. Their new legislation only makes the problem worse," Cooper said.