Concern for health of Ukrainians aboard Scotland’s ‘floating refugee camps’

Campaigners alarmed by reports of scarlet fever outbreaks

The physical and mental health of Ukrainian refugees living on ships in Glasgow and Edinburgh – branded “floating refugee camps” – are being put in danger, amid reports of residents being quarantined with scarlet fever.

A man told the Observer that he and his son had spent a week inside a cabin on board MS Ambition earlier this month after the young child was diagnosed with the highly contagious bacterial infection.

He said he knew of at least one other case on board, while another parent living on the ship said the children’s play area had been closed for two weeks to prevent children getting sick. All of those the Observer talked to said there had not been any official announcements about scarlet fever on the vessel.

Others said many on the ship were suffering from coughs and stomach upsets. Other residents also told the Observer that they were unable to open their windows due to the smell coming from a nearby waste facility and that they had faced difficulties getting their children to school.

Chartered by the Scottish government to house up to 1,750 Ukrainians on the River Clyde in Glasgow as part of a £100m scheme, the Ambition is moored in the industrial surroundings of King George V dock, which residents can only leave via shuttle bus. Another vessel, MS Victoria I, is moored in Leith.

Announcing Scotland’s “super-sponsor” scheme for Ukrainian refugees in March, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said it would provide an “uncapped commitment” to support at least 10% of the total number arriving in the UK.

“We will provide temporary accommodation and then, with people already safely here and wrapped in a warm Scottish welcome, we will work at speed with partners – local councils, the Scottish Refugee Council, the NHS, Disclosure Scotland and others – to complete safeguarding checks, put in place wider health, education, practical and befriending support, and arrange longer term accommodation,” she said.

But campaigners and opposition parties have warned that the health and safety of refugees is being put at risk by being forced to remain in what was intended to be temporary accommodation.

The MS Ambition moored at Glasgow. About 1,200 refugees are believed to be aboard.
The MS Ambition moored at Glasgow. About 1,200 refugees are believed to be aboard. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Some of the ship’s 714 cabins, where families are living in cramped conditions, are understood not to have windows. Refugees on the ship, which is believed to be housing at least 1,200, are not allowed to walk around outside it. Security workers told the Observer it was a “highly restricted area” and that it was dangerous to walk through. Construction vehicles move around nearby and building materials lie around.

To leave the site, residents must take shuttle buses either to the gates or to Braehead shopping centre, in a nearby retail park. The city centre is a 40-minute bus journey away from the ship. To receive visitors on the boat, residents must arrange an appointment.

The Scottish government earlier this year awarded a contract of up to £100m to Corporate Travel Management (CTM) to provide travel services for displaced people from Ukraine, including accommodation in hotels and on MS Ambition and MS Victoria I.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and MSP for Edinburgh Western, said: “Ultimately, while everyone is trying to make the best of it, this is a floating refugee camp and infection control is much harder than it is in the community, and this suggestion that there’s a scarlet fever outbreak is not surprising because we know that cruise ships can be huge pathogens for viruses to spread like wildfire.”

Cole-Hamilton, who visited the Leith ship in September after initially having his trip blocked by the Scottish government, said a refugee agency based in Lviv told him the Scottish government was “humiliatingly underprepared”.

He added: “They wanted the kudos for being seen to open the Scottish borders to Ukrainians, and rightly so, but they did none of the homework.”

When he visited the Leith ship he said he asked about infection control and found out that following a small Covid outbreak some residents had been housed in a separate corridor.

Sarah Boyack, for Scottish Labour, said: “These shocking reports expose the truth behind the empty promises both of our governments made to Ukrainian refugees. They were promised safety here, but they have been failed time and time again. It defies belief that the SNP ever thought this ship was the best place to home people fleeing war. We urgently need a real plan to get people the safe, secure accommodation they need.”

Robina Qureshi, chief executive of the refugee charity Positive Action in Housing, said reports of infections were “very concerning”. “On health and safety grounds alone, people should be advised of the risks they and their children and babies could be exposed to so they can take their own precautions to stay safe,” she said.

UNHCR UK said it was “seeking further information from the Scottish government”.

The Scottish government declined to comment on reports of scarlet fever, saying it was a matter for Glasgow city council, which would have notified Public Health Scotland and the Scottish government if required. It said the health and wellbeing of people on the ships was “our priority” and that elected officials had been able to visit both vessels.

A source said earlier this month dozens of children had had to walk to school because they were told there was no budget for school buses. Over the last 10 days they said they had heard concerns about scarlet fever.

Meanwhile, in a report submitted to a charity, a disabled couple living on the ship warned: “Life on a ship puts our health at risk.”

A male resident from Kyiv, who has been on the ship for three weeks, said he had heard of residents getting sick with cough and stomach upsets. Although he would rather live in a house, he said, the ship was “better than bombs”. The interview was then interrupted by security, who asked the Observer to leave the premises, saying “you have no right to be here”.

Ukrainian charity Opora said: “The difficulties around finding affordable and sustainable housing are definitely widespread and ongoing.” In a survey late last month of Ukrainian refugees in the UK, of close to 3,500 respondents, only 8% had found private housing.

“This is concerning because the options outside of the private rental sector are generally not appropriate for long-term stay or do not provide long term stability and security, which is a barrier to people being able to successfully rebuild their lives in the UK,” said trustee Stan Beneš.

The Scottish government said it was “providing temporary accommodation that is safe and sustainable until people can be matched to suitable longer-term accommodation”.

“We do not want to see anyone spend more time in temporary accommodation than is absolutely necessary. Work continues to match those on board the ships to host and longer-term accommodation, and matching teams are operating on board both ships.”

Public Health Scotland said it had a “robust surveillance system in place for monitoring infections in Scotland” but that it was a matter for the local NHS board.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said: “There are clear infection control processes in place on the MS Ambition. No concerns about an outbreak have been reported to the health board. The board does not comment on individual cases.”

Glasgow city council said its staff “have been providing social care, educational support and a range of appropriate safety checks. The council is not the provider of the accommodation and we have no expertise on communicable diseases”.

A spokesperson added: “We continue to use buses to transport children to schools across the city where the distances from the MS Ambition to those schools are beyond the statutory walking distances.

“For an initial period, where space was available, schoolchildren on the MS Ambition were bused to school even if their schools were within the statutory walking limits.

“Pupils at schools within statutory walking limits can now use the National Entitlement Card to gain free access to public transport or make their own way to school, which is the standard for all other pupils.”

• This article was amended on 28 November 2022 to include Glasgow city council’s response to the issue of children walking to school.


Miranda Bryant

The GuardianTramp

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