Tories consider sending migrants 4,000 miles to Ascension Island if Rwanda plan fails

Advice sought on using remote British overseas territory – with a population of only 900 – in ‘offshoring’ plan

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
,Maanya Sachdeva
Monday 07 August 2023 17:13 BST
Fire alarms tested on Bibby Stockholm after safety concerns

Rishi Sunak’s government is thought to have revived proposals to send migrants to a British overseas territority 4,000 miles away if the Rwanda plan fails.

Ascension Island is reportedly among the territories being re-evaluated as a place to process asylum seekers in case the government’s Rwanda policy is ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.

The government is also in negotiations with at least five other Africans countries about a similar deportation agreement to the one agreed with Rwanda, according to The Times.

Home Office minister Sarah Dines appeared to confirm the “plan B” was being resurrected as part of a range of contingency options in case the Supreme Court rules against the policy of deporting migrants to Rwanda.

Asked if the government was considering sending asylum seekers to Ascension Island, Ms Dines told Times Radio: “We’re pretty confident Rwanda is a lawful policy … But like any responsible government, we’re looking at additional measures.”

The junior Tory minister added: “We’re focused on Rwanda, which we’re confident is going to be the right place [to send people]. But of course we’re look at every other additional measure, as you would expect.”

Asked why the Ascension Island plan is being reconsidered after seemingly being rejected by Boris Johnson’s government in 2020, Ms Dines said “times change”. Speaking to Sky News, the safeguarding minister said: “We look at all possibilities.”

Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said “a responsible government considers all options” but refused to get “drawn into discussing specific speculation around different countries or proposals that we may or may not be considering”.

But both Home Office and No 10 officials steered away from the idea the Ascension Island option is under active discussion. It is understood that Mr Sunak’s ministers sought advice on reviving the Johnson-era proposal, but it has not been taken any further.

Paul O’Connor of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union said even contemplating the prospect of deportations to Ascension Island – which has no hospital – “indicates they have completely lost the plot”.

He added: “The government’s ever-increasing attempts to demonise refugees to deflect from their catastrophic failings on living standards in the UK are becoming ever more ridiculous and unhinged. They are spiralling down ever deeper into a racist cesspit.”

Home secretary Suella Braverman on visit to Rwanda

The government is also said to be in talks with five other African countries about a deal to “offshore” asylum claims – Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia, Morocco and Niger, which is currently experiencing a coup.

Grilled on discussions with other countries, Ms Dines did not deny talks. She said: “I don’t think it would be right to go into specific countries. These are delicate arrangements as part of an ongoing process of work the government do, and you would expect it to … We’re still in discussions with many people.”

Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper condemned the latest reported ideas as “headline chasing announcements that are never delivered”.

Previous plans to send illegal migrants to Ascension Island, revealed in 2020 under Mr Johnson and Priti Patel’s tenure, were branded a “logistical nightmare” by a member of the island’s council, Alan Nicholls.

A feasibility study carried out by the Foreign Office found the volcanic island, with a population of 900, was “unlivable” for reasons such as inadequate water supplies, and a lack of medical infrastructure.

The government’s Rwanda plan ran into legal roadblocks after the Court of Appeal found it was “unlawful”, citing deficiencies in the East African country’s asylum system.

A senior government source told The Times that it was “pragmatic to consider all options” including sending illegal migrants to overseas territories such as Ascension Island.

Campaigners have raised concerns about the safety of people deported to Rwanda (PA)

The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, condemned these proposals as “more shameful demonisation of men, women and children” escaping countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, and Iran.

Labour’s Ms Cooper said: “They claimed they were going to do this years ago but it never got off the ground. This joins a long list of headline chasing announcements that are never delivered.”

It comes as the first asylum seekers could be housed on the Bibby Stockholm barge as soon as Monday, as Mr Sunak’s ministers push on with the repeatedly delayed plans despite safety concerns.

Around 50 people are expected to be in the first group of up to 500 migrants to board the vessel docked in Portland Port, Dorset, despite fierce local opposition to the highly-controversial plan.

Bibby Stockholm barge set to house 500 asylum seekers

“You wouldn’t expect me to confirm the exact day for security and operational reasons … We are hopeful in the coming days, it’ll be imminent,” said Ms Dines on LBC.

The Home Office minister said that those living on the Bibby Stockholm and are going to have “some free movement” and “they are going to be able to go into Portland” – but would not confirm any arrangements.

She said: “They’re going to be able to stretch their legs, get some air, get out and about, but within proper parameters.”

Ms Dines indicated that the barge could increase rapidly to its capacity of around 500 males. Pressed on whether all of them could be on board by the end of the week, Ms Dines said: “Yes, quite possibly it will be 500. We are hoping,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The government is also increasing fines for those who allow unauthorised migrants to work for them or live in their properties, under their plans to deter Channel crossings.

Civil penalties for employers will be raised up to a maximum of £45,000 per worker for a first breach and £60,000 for repeat offenders, tripling both from the last increase in 2014.

These hikes are expected to be enforced from the beginning of next year. Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said: “There is no excuse for not conducting the appropriate checks and those in breach will now face significantly tougher penalties,” he added.

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