Home Office plans to put migrants on barges and cruise ships

‘Direction of travel’ towards using offshore vessels, as minister sets out plans to use RAF bases

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 29 March 2023 11:16 BST
Rishi Sunak questioned on The Independent’s investigation on Afghan ‘hero’ facing deportation

Migrants arriving in the UK via small boats could be housed in ferries and barges as well as disused military bases under government plans to reduce the spending on hotels.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick will announce the use of two RAF sites as he tries to reduce the £6.8m a day spends on hotel accommodation for asylum seekers.

But the plans are likely to be controversial – with foreign secretary James Cleverly having already criticised suggestions a base in his Essex constituency would be used.

The Home Office is looking at housing asylum seekers on giant barges used for offshore construction projects, according to The Times.

Other reports indicate ministers are also looking at disused cruise ships, including one from Indonesia. A government source said there is a “direction of travel” towards using ferries and barges as well but said “nothing has been bought”.

Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab described barges as “one possible option”, telling Sky News that the use of hotels was acting as a “perverse incentive” to encourage crossings.

He also told BBC Breakfast: “We will look at the whole range of options, low-cost accommodation, ex-Army barracks and – where it’s appropriate – as has been used elsewhere in Europe, and I think in Scotland as well, vessels, if they can safely and responsibly be used.”

Sources downplayed the likelihood of barges and ferries being used imminently, insisting that none had been purchased yet and plans were still at an early stage.

Home secretary Suella Braverman did not rule out the use of former cruise ships when she told MPs in December that “we are in discussion with a wide variety of providers”.

But it is not clear how the government would guarantee safety on old cruise ships or barges used for construction projects, and vessels may still have to be registered as hotels rather than detention facilities to avoid legal action.

Housing people in ships would partly replicate an approach by the Scottish government, which placed Ukrainian refugees in two cabin ships docked in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The Refugee Council said it was “deeply concerned” by the plans to use barges and cruise ships for detention, saying the ships were “entirely unsuitable” to the needs of asylum seekers.

Enver Solomon, the charity’s chief executive, said: “These sites are wholly inadequate places to house vulnerable men, women and children who have come to our country in search of safety. They are also unworkable and will add yet more cost and chaos to the system.”

Migrants being brought in to Dover, Kent, onboard a Border Force vessel

Mr Jenrick will announce in the Commons on Wednesday that people who arrive in the UK after making Channel crossings on small boats will be housed at RAF Wethersfield and RAF Scampton.

But Mr Cleverly shared his frustration with the plans after reports first surfaced that RAF Wethersfield, near Braintree, could be used to accommodate around 1,500 asylum seekers. Braintree district council is also threatening legal action to stop the Home Office move.

“I highlighted the remote nature of the site, the limited transport infrastructure and narrow road network and that these factors would mean the site wasn’t appropriate for asylum accommodation,” he wrote on Facebook.

Former Tory minister Sir Edward Leigh has previously attacked the idea of using Scampton – the former home of the “Dambusters” squadron which sits in his Lincolnshire constituency.

Sir Edward, the MP for Gainsborough, raised concerns after a deal was struck to use it as part of a £300m regeneration project for the area.

The row comes as it emerged that £3.5bn, one-third of Britain’s international aid budget, is being spent on supporting refugees and asylum seekers in the UK - reducing support available for overseas disasters.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) said while so-called “in-donor refugee costs” have ballooned in recent years, the UK’s response to floods in Pakistan and drought in Somalia has been delayed and “very limited”.

Rishi Sunak has pledged to ‘stop the boats’

Rishi Sunak told his cabinet on Tuesday that the cost of using hotels and the pressure it puts on local areas meant it was not sustainable.

The PM later told MPs that children cannot be exempted from plans to detain and deport people who cross the Channel in small boats to prevent the creation of a “pull factor”.

Ministers have been urged to give “serious assurances” they will not return to the “barbaric days” of detaining children in immigration centres as part of the Illegal Migration Bill.

As a rebellion by Tory moderates brews on the legislation, amendments tabled by senior Tory MP Loughton have sought to ensure powers of indefinite detention in the Bill do not apply to children.

Mr Jenrick said the government does not want to detain minors, adding: “But the circumstances in which we would use this power are where you have an unaccompanied minor where there is an age assessment dispute.”

Appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee, Mr Sunak was grilled about The Independent’s exclusive report on the case of an Afghan war veteran who served alongside British armed forces and has been threatened with deportation to Rwanda.

The PM told senior Tory MP Caroline Nokes he could not comment on individual cases but if the details were sent to him: “I’ll happily make sure the Home Office have a look”.

Mr Sunak also downplayed suggestions that flights under the government’s stalled Rwanda policy would begin this summer.

A government spokesman said: “We continue to work across government and with local authorities to identify a range of accommodation options. The government remains committed to engaging with local authorities and key stakeholders as part of this process.”

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