Ascension Island: 800 residents, turtles but no hospital – where migrants could be sent as Rwanda plan fails

Ascension Island is situated about 4,000 miles from the UK and has only a few shops and basic amenities

Holly Evans
Wednesday 15 November 2023 12:33 GMT
Tory minister discusses potential plan to send asylum seekers to Ascension Island

Rishi Sunak's government is said to be considering deporting migrants to other countries as a ‘plan B’ to his policy to send them to Rwanda, which has been deemed unlawful by top judges.

The prime minister has vowed to do “whatever it takes” to stop small boat crossings, and insisted the government had spent the “last few months planning for all eventualities” as the Supreme Court rejects his flagship policy.

Five justices at the UK’s highest court unanimously rejected their latest appeal to remove asylum seekers to the east African nation, placing Sunak under huge pressure to set out an alternative option.

Earlier this year, the prime minister was said to be considering flying migrants to a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Located about 4,000 miles from the UK, Ascension Island is reportedly among the territories being re-evaluated as a place to process asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via unauthorised means.

The volcanic island is around 4,000 miles away from the UK
The volcanic island is around 4,000 miles away from the UK (PA Wire)

Considered one of the remotest inhabited locations on Earth, its closest landfall is Brazil, which is around 1,400 miles away. It is situated 807 miles northwest of St Helena and is just under 34 square miles in size, with only basic amenities available for islanders.

Since being discovered in 1501, it has hosted few inhabitants and is currently home to around 800 people. With no permanent or Indigenous population on the island, its occupants consist of employees and their families, who work at the British and US air bases.

While Ascension Island has its own Constitution and is self-governing, it is a British Overseas Territory with the UK responsible for defence, international relations and security on the island.

It was first garrisoned by the British in 1815, to ensure Napoleon Bonaparte was not rescued from his island prison in St Helena.

During the Second World War, it was used as a base for the US and became a crucial RAF refuelling point during the Falklands War.

It remains an important military and support base, with the Daily Mail reporting that the runway was extended and improved just last year, at a cost of £250 million.

While Charles Darwin initially described the volcanic island as “hideous” in 1836, it has since been modernised with artificial planting and the construction of the ‘capital’ town of Georgetown. Home to 450 people, it comprises a government house, a post office, a handful of shops and even a cinema and a gym.

Ascension Island lies in the South Atlantic (Martin Cleaver/PA)
Ascension Island lies in the South Atlantic (Martin Cleaver/PA) (PA Archive)

A second settlement, Two Boats, is also home to a number of inhabitants. There is however only one dentist and a small medical centre, with serious casualties having to be evacuated to St Helena.

It is also renowned for its string of golden beaches, which play host to one of the world’s largest populations of green turtles. With temperatures ranging from 20C to 38C, an array of native wildlife including seabirds and crustaceans appear along its low coastal areas.

The island was previously considered a location to process asylum seekers, with ministers believing its remote location would create a strong deterrent for migrants hoping to cross the Channel.

They were previously dropped after a feasibility study carried out by the Foreign Office declared Ascension Island unsuitable for various reasons, including inadequate power and water supplies and a lack of a hospital.

Proposals have been in placeas the Rwanda policy has been mired in legal challenges ever since it was first announced in April 2022.

The first 50 migrants are expected to arrive at the Bibby Stockholm barge today (James Manning/PA)
The first 50 migrants are expected to arrive at the Bibby Stockholm barge today (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

In June, it was ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal due to deficiencies in the Rwandan asylum system, who concluded the African nation was not a “safe third country”.

Supreme Court President Lord Reed has now ruled that there would be a risk of Rwanda returning genuine asylum seekers to face “ill treatment” in the country they had fled.

In a statement, Mr Sunak said: “We have seen today’s judgment and will now consider next steps.

“This was not the outcome we wanted, but we have spent the last few months planning for all eventualities and we remain completely committed to stopping the boats.”

He said that, “crucially”, the courts have ruled that the “principle” of sending migrants to a third country is lawful.

“Illegal migration destroys lives and costs British taxpayers millions of pounds a year. We need to end it and we will do whatever it takes to do so,” he said.

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