A disputed plan by the UK government to reduce spending on asylum seeker accommodation has come a step closer to beginning by the arrival into a Dorset port of the giant accommodation barge The Bibby Stockholm, which those in favour refer to as a “floating hotel”.
The three-storey vessel is 93 metres in length, and has 222 rooms and is expected to take its first 50 “residents” in the coming weeks and these will be single, adult males aged from 18 to 65, who are in the latter stages of their asylum applications.
The plan however, is to eventually house around 500 people onboard, and critics highlight that means the eventual conditions will be cramped at best, and label it “cruel and inhumane”, and pretty much a “prison on the water”.
The boat’s owners say it is “practical, safe and comfortable” and has catering facilities, quiet rooms, faith rooms, a TV lounge, space for games and has a computer room to enable migrants to access the internet.
There has been a great deal of local opposition from the small island community who have objected to its presence and are angry at the lack of consultation given to them.
“Monster” problems foreseen
The barge was tugged along England’s south coast from Falmouth Harbour in Cornwall to take up residence at the small Isle of Portland, which is the southern tip of what has become known as the “Jurassic Coast”, a beautiful 95-mile long stretch across the counties of Dorset and Devon.
At almost the length of a standard football pitch, the boat would at first glance seem to be more than adequate to house around 500 people, but the rooms although being en-suite, are said to be very small and will need to be shared by at least two individuals, who will be required to stay for anywhere between three to six months, whilst their claims are dealt with.
The first intake will be brought onboard once it is connected up to the necessary power, water and sewage facilities.
The Bibby Stockholm is initially contracted to be berthed at Portland for 18 months, beneath a steep hillside which is actually dominated by The Verne prison and the Royal Naval Cemetery. Officials are keen to stress that the young men are not detained anywhere on board and within reason are free to come and go as they please, although they must stay within a “secure compound”.
This has not gone down well with large numbers of locals who have voiced their concerns, stating they fear the impact hundreds of young, male asylum seekers will have on the isolated South Coast community where public services like healthcare are already under strain. Also there are concerns on the effect it might have on the tourism economy.
Portland is joined to mainland England by the fine thread of Chesil beach and only takes 10 minutes to drive from end to end and a single road links the island to the popular resort of Weymouth. It also has a worldwide reputation for its sailing waters; indeed it was the host venue for all the sailing events during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Making the numbers add up
The main reason the government has cited for using the giant barge option is part of efforts to stop the small boat crossings of the English Channel which have led to some tragic losses in recent times. They also say that people who have risked and survived these dangerous crossings became responsible for around 45% of all asylum applications made in 2022.
They broke that down further by releasing an actual figure of 45,755 migrants who had travelled across the Channel during that calendar year, which represented the highest number since data began being collected in 2018.
Choppy waters ahead for government
Richard Drax, the Conservative MP for South Dorset, criticised the government stressing that the barge had been brought to a totally unsuitable destination, pointing out its restrictions in access and the inevitable effect it is likely to have on a tourist-dependent area.
He said: “We will continue to hold the Home Office to account, for it is they and the port that have imposed this barge on us without giving us any prior consultation, which is discourteous at best.”
A private firm has been has a contract to manage the Bibby Stockholm worth it is believed to be around a staggering £1.6bn. The government will cover costs for NHS services, policing and other public bodies. The local council is receiving £3,500 per occupied bed-space, and has also been given a one-off grant of almost £380,000.
Calm before the storm
Portland Port has said that all asylum seekers will receive cultural awareness advice aimed at ensuring they understand the “social norms in the UK”, but charity named: Freedom From Torture observed that this situation was a “catastrophe waiting to happen”.
Downing Street defended the use of the barge, insisting it is a cheaper alternative to hotels, where around 50,000 people are currently being accommodated at a cost of £6m a day.