The first asylum-seekers boarded a controversial barge moored in southern England Monday as public health experts warned of the possible risk of infection in living conditions that campaigners branded as inhumane.
Fifteen migrants boarded the boat, named Bibby Stockholm, which is docked in Portland, on the Dorset coast of southwest England.
“Accommodation is offered to individuals on a no-choice basis,” said Cheryl Avery, director for asylum accommodation at the UK Home Office, noting that there have been legal challenges to the plan.
Plans announced by the UK government in April to house around 500 single adult men on the vessel struck a political nerve in Britain, where the Home Office has ramped up hostile policies towards refugees in a bid to reduce the number of small boat crossings in the face of the European migrant crisis.
We have had a few challenges, but this is part of an ongoing structured process to bring a cohort of up to 500 people on board. There have some challenges – some minor legal challenges – and I can’t go into the detail of those, but accommodation is offered to individuals on a no-choice basis,” Avery told reporters Monday.
Several groups have flagged safety concerns over the Bibby Stockholm. It was called a “death trap” by the UK’s Fire Brigades Union (FBU) on Wednesday. And Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, warned that respiratory infections were more likely to spread in cramped spaces with narrow corridors and doorways.
“Generally respiratory infections, as we’ve all learnt through the pandemic … are at higher risk in confined settings with poorer ventilation, so the sorts of things we look at is what the ventilation is like,” she told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” show on Monday.
The agency will visit the barge to assess the “infection prevention control” once migrants are on board, Harries said, adding: “We know that the accommodation complies with marine standards, which is what has been agreed is correct for that particular accommodation.”
Last week, the FBU’s Assistant General Secretary Ben Selby said the barge had been “retrofitted” for 222 people, not the 500 people the government wants to accommodate.
“If firefighters were needed to make entry through those narrow corridors when people were seeking to escape from it in the case of a fire, how would they even reach the seat of that fire and make the necessary rescues?” Selby told Sky News.
More people had been expected, but 20 had their transfers canceled after legal representatives intervened, the refugee charity Care4Calais told CNN later on Monday.
Use of the Bibby Stockholm is part of a raft of measures by the Conservative government intended to slash the cost of housing migrants in hotels and ease the backlog of unprocessed asylum claims.
The UK government is spending £6 million (nearly $7.6 million) per day on accommodating migrants in hotels, according to UK Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden.
Dowden responded to the FBU’s statement last week, saying the government would “take into account those concerns and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The number of people risking the treacherous crossing between Britain and France has spiraled so far this year, fueled by war, global inequality and the climate crisis.
In 2022, 45,755 people crossed in small boats, according to UK government data, heaping pressure on an immigration system that critics warn is broken and underfunded.
About 11,500 people were monitored crossing the Channel in small boats in the first half of 2023. Even though the figure represents a 10% decrease compared to the same period in 2022, most journeys happen in the second half of the year.
Last month, the UK government pushed through the Illegal Migration Bill, a controversial law that gives it powers to detain and remove undocumented migrants from the country.
The UN’s refugee agency condemned the legislation and said it amounts to an “asylum ban,” breaching the UK’s obligations under international law.
Steve Smith, the CEO of refugee charity Care4Calais, told CNN that the move to house refugees on the Bibby Stockholm was “causing a huge amount of anxiety.”
“Amongst those we are supporting are the survivors of torture, people with disabilities and people who have experienced trauma at sea. Housing any human on a ‘floating prison’ like the Bibby Stockholm is unacceptable. Doing so to people like this is completely inhumane. It is causing a huge amount of anxiety,” he said in a statement on Monday.
“This is yet another example of an ill-thought-out, knee-jerk reaction to the Government’s own backlog of asylum claims. If it had been properly planned, we wouldn’t be seeing last-minute, panicked activity to address the serious fire safety concerns that arise when trying to cram over 500 people into a boat built for just 220.”