Asylum seekers who refuse to move onto the government’s new asylum barge are being threatened with eviction and potential homelessness, as resistance hampers ministers’ ambitions to pack 500 people on board.
Only 15 migrants were put on the Bibby Stockholm on Monday – far below the Home Office’s initial estimate of 50 in the first group – and officials said more people had arrived on Tuesday but would not confirm how many.
The Home Office has already abandoned attempts to transfer at least 20 men selected for the barge, after receiving legal letters warning that some had disabilities, serious medical conditions and other issues and that placing them on board would break the government’s own rules.
But several other people who refused to board buses from their hotels to Portland Port on Monday received letters demanding they move on Tuesday or face the withdrawal of housing and other support.
The letters, originally published by Sky News, read: “Arrangements were made for you to travel from your accommodation to alternative accommodation at the Bibby Stockholm in Portland on 7th August 2023.
“On 7th August 2023 you did not take up the offer of this accommodation … if you do not travel tomorrow, on 8th August 2023, arrangements for ceasing the support that you are receiving from the Home Office may commence.”
The Home Office cited part of a 1999 law that creates a duty for it to provide accommodation and financial support for asylum seekers who are “destitute”, meaning they “do not have adequate accommodation or any means of obtaining it”, or “cannot meet essential living needs”.
The Care4Calais charity said anyone receiving a transfer notice for the Bibby Stockholm “has the right to challenge it, and there are multiple reasons for them to do so”.
Chief executive Steve Smith added: “We have serious concerns that the letters portray a strong element of compulsion when in fact asylum seekers are entitled to say no.
“It’s becoming clear that the government is now trying to target those asylum seekers who have been unable to secure legal representation, by threatening to make them homeless if they don’t move.”
The charity said no asylum seekers who have obtained legal representation had received the “latest Home Office threat”, and that it would be seeking advice from lawyers on the government’s process.
Asked whether it was legal to withdraw state accommodation for refusing to board the Bibby Stockholm, justice secretary Alex Chalk said it was “not unreasonable” to expect people to live on the “perfectly safe and decent” barge.
Pressed on whether it would be illegal for the Home Office to remove accommodation, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “That is something the courts would have to consider but I think it would be unlikely that it would be illegal … I suspect it’s unlikely to be unlawful.”
The Independent understands that the initial transfer notices were sent to hotels in two batches on the evenings of 28 July and last Friday, meaning that some asylum seekers had only two days’ warning.
Many are believed not to have obtained advice or legal representation, and there have already been several cases where the Home Office violated its own guidance by trying to move disabled asylum seekers and torture victims onto the Bibby Stockholm because of poor screening.
The new letter said that accommodation was offered “on a no-choice basis”, adding: “Where asylum seekers fail to take up an offer of suitable accommodation without a reasonable explanation, there should be no expectation that alternative accommodation will be offered.”
It listed facilities on the barge, including an on-site nurse, gym, and offered “voluntary sector activities” and English classes.
Following concerns over fire safety, evacuation routes and virus outbreaks, the letter added: “The vessel was recently updated and it is a safe and appropriate accommodation site.”
Charity Migrants Organise has sent a pre-action letter to the Home Office calling for it to stop transferring asylum seekers “until and unless all concerns regarding the safety and suitability of the barge have been adequately addressed, including the necessary fire safety checks”.
The letter, sent on Sunday, demanded a new screening process for asylum seekers being housed there, and a minimum of 72 hours’ notice.
It warned of “serious risks” of unlawful detention, targeting by far-right groups, virus outbreaks, fire, overcrowding and a lack of privacy.
Rules imposed by the government itself exclude some vulnerable people from the barge, and state that those who do board should only be there for a maximum of nine months.
Internal guidance states that only single men between the age of 18 and 65 can be put on the Bibby Stockholm, and that they cannot be victims of modern slavery or trafficking.
They cannot be disabled, elderly, or victims of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence.
Those with “complex health needs”, such as tuberculosis and infectious diseases, are also excluded, as is anyone with serious mental health issues.
The Home Office bars anyone who is at risk of suicide or “serious self-harm”, who could be a threat to others or has a “history of disruptive behaviour”.
Even if it reaches its full capacity, the Bibby Stockholm will house less than 1 per cent of the over 50,000 asylum seekers currently being accommodated in hotels at a cost of over £6m a day.
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