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Government’s ‘small boats week’ ends in humiliation as barge evacuated over legionnaires’ disease fears

Migrants forced to disembark from ‘Bibby Stockholm’ just days after arriving on board

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
,Kate Devlin,Adam Forrest
Friday 11 August 2023 20:15 BST
Migrants evacuated from Bibby Stockholm after Legionnaires’ disease bacteria discovered

Rishi Sunak’s “small boats week” has ended in humiliation for the government as it was forced to evacuate the Bibby Stockholm migrant barge following the discovery of dangerous Legionella bacteria.

The 39 asylum seekers who had been placed on the vessel in Portland, Dorset, were removed from it after the bacteria – which can cause a serious type of pneumonia – were found in the water supply, just days after the first migrants had arrived on board.

One former Tory minister called for home secretary Suella Braverman to be sacked for “losing control” of the Channel crisis, while another joked: “Is the government cursed?”

Letters handed to asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm said the contaminated water sample had been taken on 25 July, but The Independent understands that test results were not sent to private contractors until Monday, and were communicated to the Home Office on Wednesday.

The UK Health Security Agency did not advise an evacuation until Thursday night, and officials said they had gone beyond recommendations by taking everyone off the barge rather than a small group.

As tests continued on Friday, all those on board were moved to government hotels, increasing the cost of the already extortionate barge project that the prime minister claimed would reduce hotel use.

The evacuation started hours after Home Office figures revealed that more than 100,000 people had arrived in the UK on small boats since 2018, after 755 arrived on Thursday – the highest daily total for 2023.

The milestone was hit during “small boats week”, in which the government sought to make a series of positive announcements regarding efforts to combat crossings – but was instead hit by a barrage of damaging revelations.

In the days before the disembarkment, ministers made media appearances over several days in an effort to defend the barge against safety concerns, with immigration minister Robert Jenrick insisting it was “perfectly decent” and Home Office minister Sarah Dines claiming: “It’s a safe place for people to live and stay.”

Tuberculosis and scabies cases have previously been found at the Wethersfield military base – another of the government’s new “alternative” asylum accommodation sites.

“What an end to small boats week,” one former Conservative minister said. “It’s obvious to all that the home secretary has lost all control and authority on the issue of illegal migration.

All 39 asylum seekers who had been put on the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ since Monday were being evacuated on Friday (AFP via Getty)

“She is responsible for this crisis and should be held to account for her irresponsible actions that have brought disease to these sites and now threaten the public health of the local community.

“She should be sacked. She has turned the migrant crisis into a Carry On show.”

Conservative MP Scott Benton called the situation a “complete and utter farce”, writing on Twitter: “As if having porous borders isn’t bad enough, we can’t even move 39 illegal immigrants onto a barge properly.”

The assistant general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Ben Selby, said wider safety concerns over the vessel remained, with more than a week having passed since the union asked for a meeting with Ms Braverman.

“We have had no response to that letter,” he added. “It remains our professional view that it’s a potential ‘death trap’ and an accident waiting to happen.”

Inside the Bibby Stockholm asylum barge

The Home Office said no asylum seekers had presented with symptoms of the dangerous legionnaires’ disease, and that the evacuation was a “precautionary measure” while further tests are carried out.

A spokesperson insisted there was no risk to the wider community of Portland from the barge, which is being run by private firms under a wider £1.6bn contract.

Louie O’Leary, a Tory councillor on Dorset Council who opposed the barge plan, said the problem should have been sorted out during safety checks. “I hope it’s not too late for a rethink,” he told The Independent.

“You can’t polish a turd. Most of us said this was not a sensible thing to do, and that’s proving to be the case. It’s costly and complex, and it’s not better than housing people in hotels.”

Asylum seekers were still on board the barge when the Home Office announced the evacuation on Friday afternoon, with charity workers telling The Independent they had not been told anything about the Legionella bacteria or given any safety precautions relating to water.

Protesters delivered ‘welcome packs’ as the first 15 migrants arrived at the barge on Monday – just four days before being evacuated (Getty)

The former Tory minister said that even before the barge evacuation, the government’s “week of gimmicks” had been a transparent attempt to distract from “operational failures to stop the boats”.

“All they’re doing is reinforcing the fact that the government has failed and the public has seen that,” they added.

Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, said: “The Tories’ asylum chaos is going from bad to worse.

“They cannot even get the most basic things right. Reports of dangerous Legionella bacteria on board come on top of fire safety delays and the revelation that it won’t stop costs and hotel use going up even further because the backlog is so high.”

It followed revelations that the Home Office had tried to put disabled asylum seekers and torture victims on the barge on Monday, in violation of its own guidance, and then threatened people who refused to board with homelessness.

On Tuesday, the government announced a crackdown on immigration lawyers it claims are helping migrants “exploit” the system, but it faced an immediate backlash from legal groups, who accused ministers of scapegoating the profession for upholding the government’s own laws.

Thursday was the busiest day for Channel crossings so far in 2023, as figures revealed more than 100,000 people had arrived in the UK on small boats since 2018 (PA Wire)

The following day saw the unveiling of a new partnership with Turkey to disrupt the supply of dinghies used for Channel crossings, although ministers would not say how much money was being given to Ankara.

The week has also seen a raft of potential policies floated, including withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights if the Supreme Court stops the Rwanda plan – a suggestion that sparked fresh infighting among the Tories – and sending asylum seekers to Ascension Island instead.

The ex-minister dismissed this as the “never-ending fantasy policy of ministers on a sinking ship who are trying to push the blame elsewhere”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The unacceptable number of people risking their lives by making dangerous Channel crossings is placing an unprecedented strain on our asylum system.

“We are bringing forward alternative accommodation options to help reduce the use of expensive hotels and move to a more orderly, sustainable system which is more manageable for local communities.”

Afghans now represent the most common nationality among those arriving on small boats, following the collapse in the number of refugees resettled directly from the country.

Last month, the government passed a series of punitive asylum laws aiming to see small-boat migrants detained and deported without their claims being considered.

But the Illegal Migration Act cannot be implemented because there are no operational deportation agreements in place, with the £140m Rwanda scheme having been ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal.

Even if the government wins the final stage of the legal battle at the Supreme Court later this year, the lord chief justice said “the physical capacity for housing asylum seekers in Rwanda was limited to 100”.

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