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Government Warned Bibby Stockholm Tackles "Symptoms" Not "Causes" Of Channel Crossings


5 min read

The Government is facing criticism that its decision to start moving asylum seekers onto detention barge the Bibby Stockholm is tackling the “symptoms and not the causes” of the small boats crisis, which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to solve.

This week Downing Street has renewed its focus on the issue of migrants illegally crossing the Channel in small boats, and has for the first time moved adult male asylum seekers awaiting the processing of their claims onto the controversial barge. The vessel, which was previously used to house 200 oil and gas workers, will now provide “basic and functional” accommodation for migrants. 

On Monday, the first 15 migrants were taken onto the boat. But a number of leading voices on immigration in Whitehall, including Conservative MPs, have questioned whether the new accommodation measures will make significant headway in achieving Sunak's pledge to "stop the boats", while human rights organisations have objected wholeheartedly.

Karl Williams, Deputy Research Director at the Centre for Policy Studies, who co-authored a report with former Downing Street senior advisor Nick Timothy on "stopping the boats", which was welcomed by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, told PoliticsHome more could be done to stop people coming to the UK from crossing the Channel. 

"Fundamentally, [the policy] is addressing the symptoms and not the causes of the small boats and the crisis," he said. 

"On the one hand, it probably is slightly more of a deterrent than housing people in nice hotels. Of course, that is not the main pull to the UK. But it is something that is used by the people smugglers to entice people to pay to make the crossing."

He added that for the Bibby Stockholm to truly be a “deterrent” for migrants, the Government may have to put people in “indefinite detention”, but did not believe that was currently an option.

"We can't do that as there is a body of domestic case law," Williams explained. 

"Secondly, even if parliament legislated for it, the policy would put us in conflict with Article 5 of the ECHR [European Convention of Human Rights]". 

Earlier on Wednesday, however, immigration minister Robert Jenrick indicated the government would consider leaving the ECHR, insisting they would do "whatever it takes" to stop small boats illegally crossing the Channel.

Lucy Moreton, professional officer at the Immigration Service Union (ISU), noted that the Bibby Stockholm could only house 500 people while thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have already crossed the Channel this year.

“It’s not going to stop migrants being housed in hotels, whether you view that as a problem is down to individual perception. It’s not going to end the accommodation of asylum seekers in hotels,” she told PoliticsHome. 

Government intends to reduce the number of migrants accommodated by hotels by forcibly deporting them to Rwanda, but the scheme has been stalled by legal challenges. A former Home Office adviser told PoliticsHome they believed a major part of the Government’s policy proposals rest on Rwanda working. Earlier this week The Times reported that government had considered an alternative offshore detention centre on the remote south Atlantic Ascension Islands, which Whitehall sources have since conceded would likely be “resisted” by the Ministry of Defence and US Government.  

One senior Tory MP told PoliticsHome they were not “antagonistic” towards the barge policy, but felt that sending migrants to Rwanda and rumours about the Ascension Islands were “headline seeking” as opposed to “policy proposing”.

“The Rwanda policy is to some extent floating ideas, running headlines rather than policies. When it comes down to it they [the Government] are going to need something else, as Rwanda will only be able to take between 500 to 200 people,” they said.

An Afghan migrant described the barge to the BBC as “prison” and described the feeling as entering “Alcatraz”. However, a number of Conservative MPs have defended the Government’s policy. Former cabinet minister David Davis told PoliticsHome that the “right to your freedom” is “not the right to a comfortable hotel room". 

Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith said there was “nothing wrong with the policy”. “I don’t see any reason why the asylum seekers can’t go there, I think it’s a reasonable position," he said. "It’s also there to deter others from coming across."

A government source told PoliticsHome they were surprised how quickly the policy to get asylum seekers onto the barge had been implemented. Ministers were allegedly told it would take weeks and possibly months to get to this point.

Human rights organisations and refugee charities are especially disappointed that the barge scheme has begun to be rolled out. 

Tim Naor Hilton, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, told PoliticsHome they felt “segregating, squeezing and detaining” people on Bibby Stockholm will “cause horrendous health issues and make existing problems worse”.

Alex Fraser, the British Red Cross’s UK director for refugee support and restoring family links, told PoliticsHome new sites such as the barge were “entirely inappropriate” for people seeking asylum.

“We find ourselves in this position as a direct result of the failure to tackle the asylum backlog, with over 172,000 people living in limbo. We need a more effective and compassionate asylum system, one that supports people to integrate into a community so they can find safety and live in dignity,” Fraser added.

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