Government reveals full details of plan to house 500 asylum seekers on a barge in Dorset

At least one asylum seeker died on the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ when it was used to detain migrants in the Netherlands

Lizzie Dearden,Archie Mitchell
Wednesday 05 April 2023 19:23 BST
Tory MP says asylum barges should be 'totally out of the question'

The government has laid out controversial plans to house around 500 asylum seekers on a barge off the coast of Dorset.

The Home Office said the three-storey vessel, named Bibby Stockholm, would be berthed in Portland, where the local MP and council have threatened legal challenges.

The 93-metre long barge, being leased from Liverpool-based Bibby Marine Limited, previously saw at least one person die and reports of rape and abuse on board when it was used by the Dutch government to detain asylum seekers.

The Home Office said only “single adult males” would be housed on the vessel, and that it needed to move asylum seekers out of hotels that are currently costing more than £6m per day.

“It will provide basic and functional accommodation, and healthcare provision, catering facilities and 24/7 security will be in place on board, to minimise the disruption to local communities,” a spokesperson added.

“Migrants are due to be moved onto the Bibby Stockholm in the coming months. The Home Office is in discussions with other ports and further vessels will be announced in due course.”

The government hopes the barge, as well as old military bases and a former prison, will lower costs but charities have labelled the sites “unsuitable” and called for the Home Office to speed up the processing of asylum cases amid record backlogs.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the “muddled” plans resulted from the government’s failure to properly process asylum cases.

“Asylum seekers should have access to safe and appropriate accommodation including having proper physical and mental health support, access to education and community links,” he added.

“A floating barge does not provide what they need nor the respect, dignity and support they deserve.”

Amnesty International UK called the announcement “political theatre created to obscure its gross mismanagement of the asylum system”, and said self-inflicted costs were being used by the government to “justify further hardline and reckless policies”.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said the use of barges and ferries would save public money and “prevent the UK becoming a magnet”.

“All accommodation will meet our legal obligations and we will work closely with the local community to address their concerns, including through financial support,” he added.

The Home Office said it was doubling up the number of asylum caseworkers and speeding up the processing of claims, following the prime minister’s pledge to clear part of the backlog by the end of this year.

It is currently housing more than 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers in hundreds of hotels, at an average cost of £120 each per night.

The plans have already sparked outrage, with local Tory MP Richard Drax threatening to look at “any way” to thwart Ms Braverman’s proposal. Conservative-run Dorset Council is also opposed to the plans.

‘Bibby Stockholm’ was previously used to house asylum seekers in the Netherlands

Mr Drax, the MP for South Dorset, said the barge was being “dumped on our door” without consultation by the Home Office and threatened a legal challenge if the idea is not scrapped.

He added: “We want to get this consigned to the dustbin before anything’s signed. We want to activate ourselves and say, ‘look, home secretary, sorry – this is not the right place, can you please cancel this’.”

Separate plans to use two ex-military bases and a former prison were met with anger by local Tories when they were unveiled last week.

The Bibby Stockholm was used to detain asylum seekers in the Netherlands in the 2000s, but was taken out of service after an undercover investigation by a Dutch newspaper uncovered mistreatment by prison officers, rapes by migrants and fire safety failings.

Several migrants imprisoned on ships in the Netherlands are reported to have died, including an Algerian man on the Bibby Stockholm in 2008.

The barge was later refurbished to be used as accommodation for Petrofac workers constructing a gas plant in Shetland.

A current company brochure states that it contains 222 single en-suite bedrooms, a kitchen and restaurant, TV and games rooms, gym and bar.

The use of barges and cruise ships to house asylum seekers was previously ruled out by the Treasury, while Rishi Sunak was chancellor.

The Independent understands that formal research conducted during the Covid pandemic concluded that cruise ships and other vessels could be more expensive than hotels, and raised significant practical, legal and ethical issues.

Hotels used to accommodate asylum seekers, such as in Knowsley, have been the target of local anger

Scoping work by the Home Office warned that because asylum seekers could not be detained on vessels, there were significant practical issues in allowing them to move around busy ports and travel to schools, GP surgeries and other vital amenities.

The government has defended the use of barges and military sites as an alternative to the “eyewatering” cost of hotels, but has not acknowledged a watchdog report accusing the Home Office of driving up “soaring” spending with its own failings.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) found it was spending £120 per person per night in hotels, including catering and other services, compared to £18 for longer-term accommodation in houses and flats.

It found that the Home Office’s failure to address a “critical shortage” of accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers, driven by its record asylum decisions backlog as well as rising Channel crossings, was driving spending on hotels.

“While the Home Office has recently started planning long-term solutions, the short-term nature of its response to date has contributed to the spiralling costs,” the ICAI said, warning that the government did not “effectively oversee the value for money” from lucrative private contracts.

Parliament is currently considering the Illegal Migration Bill, which the government claims will “deter” Channel crossings by enabling it to detain and deport anyone arriving via small boat.

The government has not published the official impact assessment for the bill or information on how much the plans will cost, amid questions over immigration detention capacity.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in