U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has tied his mandate to resolving the migration crisis — and he’s not ruling out any strategy to do so. The first idea was to send anyone who arrived irregularly on British shores to Rwanda, a project that is still going ahead. Now, the Home Office has announced it will house asylum seekers on a large barge called the Bibby Stockholm in a bid to stop them from setting foot on British soil.
“We can’t have a situation where we are collectively spending 6 million pounds ($7.5 million) a day on hotels for illegal asylum seekers. That can’t be right,” said Sunak on Thursday. “I said that I would do everything I could to stop that, and reduce the pressure on our communities from asylum seekers being in hotels, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re bringing forward alternative sites like the barge that we’ve announced today.”
Currently, more than 51,000 asylum seekers are being housed in around 400 hotels throughout the United Kingdom, as they wait for their asylum applications to be processed.
The Bibby Stockholm does not look like a typical ship. The barge looks more like an immense floating building — or a prison, according to critics of the project. The rectangular-shaped vessel has 222 rooms, a bar and a gym, and is set to be moored in the port of Portland, in the city of Weymouth, in southern England. The British government hopes to be able to house up to 500 men on the barge, for at least 18 months.
The vessel is owned by the Liverpool-based company Bibby Marine, but operates under the Barbados flag. “The Bibby Stockholm has been refurbished and has comfortably housed workers from various industries including construction, marine and the armed forces over the years,” said a spokesperson from Bibby Marine. In the early 2000s, the Dutch government contracted the same barge to house asylum seekers, but it was taken out of service after a watchdog called it an “oppressive environment.”
Local authorities, refugee aid organizations and even the odd Conservative Party lawmaker have criticized the new plan.
“A floating barge does not provide what they need nor the respect, dignity and support they deserve,” said Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council.
“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,” added Christina Marriott, executive director of strategy and communications for the British Red Cross.
As well as the objections on humanitarian grounds, there are also concerns that the plan will heighten social tension and damage the tourism industry in the local area.
Tory MP Richard Drax, who represents the Dorset constituency where Weymouth is located, has vocally opposed the measure, and vowed to stop it.
“Every option is being looked at, including legal action. We want to get this consigned to the dustbin before anything’s signed,” said Drax. He added that the harbor, near Weymouth, was a “summer resort dependent almost entirely on visitors and tourists. With 500 migrants or more dumped here, I cannot see this is a sensible move. We already know some migrants have disappeared from hotels — we fear some into gangs.”
Port authorities, however, have welcomed the project, arguing that it will provide a boost to local businesses. “We encourage everyone in the community to approach this with an open mind and help us show other areas just how successful this type of initiative can be, both for the asylum seekers and the local community,” said Bill Reeves, chief executive of Portland Port, who promised that locals and volunteers will be closely involved in all decision-making.
A desperate Sunak
So far this year, almost 4,000 people have arrived on British shores via the English Channel. These are paltry numbers compared to the number of arrivals in southern Europe, but immigration is a very toxic political issue in Britain — as was made clear by Brexit. According to sociologists, nearly half of all Conservative and Labor Party voters list immigration as their top concern. In 2018, only 300 migrants crossed the channel but last year that number exceeded 40,000.
Faced with these numbers, Sunak has announced a series of new measures to deal with the crisis. In March, he put forward a contentious new bill which will prevent asylum seekers who enter Britain irregularly from requesting asylum. The legislation — which has been widely criticized by human rights organizations — argues that, contrary to U.N. guidelines, these asylum seekers are “illegal” and do not deserve the same access to asylum as other refugees. The bill only provides exceptions for minors, or refugees fleeing serious persecution: everyone else who arrives irregularly will be deported.
The U.K. is also still planning to deport irregular migrants to Rwanda, which signed an agreement with the Boris Johnson administration last year. The first planned deportation flight was blocked last June by a last-minute injunction from the European Court of Human Rights. But in March, the U.K. High Court found that the policy was legal.
While Sunak has managed to rebuild U.K. relations with Europe, he has not been able to convince the French government to accept back migrants who arrive in the U.K. from France. The government of French President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that the matter can only be decided by the European Union. Macron, however, has promised to increase cooperation and direct more resources to monitoring the French beaches from where most of the boats depart.
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