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Logistical Challenges Have Halted Home Office Barge Plans Since Last Year

3 min read

A range of practical challenges including food, safety, and where to moor them are believed to have held up Home Office plans to house asylum seekers on barges and cruise ships since last year, PoliticsHome understands.

The proposal, which is one of several options being considered by ministers as part of their small boats policy, would see people who cross the Channel illegally detained in a barge with basic facilities that would usually be used in offshore construction projects, according to The Times. The newspaper reported that the vessel has already been procured by the government.

Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, told MPs on Wednesday the Home Office was "exploring the possibility" but stopped short of confirming that the department would take the plan forward.

Reducing the use of hotels to house asylum seekers who arrive in the UK illegally is a key part of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's pledge to stop people reaching the south coast of England in small boats. 

The idea to use alternative offshore accommodation is believed have existed for many months and was considered by Home Office officials last year during Priti Patel's tenure as Home Secretary. A source familiar with the plans said it's "been around for ages".

PoliticsHome understands officials flagged a number of potential problems with the barge proposal, including that ministers would encounter a struggle to find a British port that would agree to hosting a barge for a lengthy period of time. Docks in Liverpool and the southwest are regarded as potential locations, according to The Telegraph.

Questions over day-to-day challenges such as getting necessities like food, bedding and medicine onto barges have also persisted, as well as warnings that detaining people in such vessels for many weeks could breach laws around arbitrary detention.

According to Bloomberg the plan was rejected last year because it would end up being more expensive than the current practice of using hotels. Documents obtained by the publication showed it would cost the government £100,000s-a-year to use vessels for detention.

Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, told PoliticsHome he had not been consulted about Liverpool's potential involvement in the the department's plans, and that the reported proposal illustrated "how this government's contempt for asylum seekers knows no bounds".

"The fact that local areas are learning of this through news reports, rather than through consultation with government, is typical of the Tories," he said.

"They're offering no long-term solutions, only furthering dehumanising and discriminating against vulnerable people in their greatest moment of need."

He added: "Our region's shores have welcomed people seeking refuge for centuries and we remain steadfast in our determination to continue to act as a sanctuary to those who need our help – but we will only do so through the right avenues. Refugees are human beings and deserve to be treated as such, not as a problem to be hidden away."

The Prime Minister's plan to stop small boats crossing the Channel are contained within the Illegal Migration Bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons this week. It is believed that proposals to use offshore accommodation could act as a deterrent to entering the UK illegally, as well as helping to reduce the use of hotels.

Sunak managed to avoid Conservative back bench rebellions on the bill, but he faces pressure from one side of his party to change the legislation so it brings forward safe routes for some refugees to arrive in the UK legally, and from the other to limit the influence of European judges.

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