Giant vessel housing asylum seekers could be docked in Plymouth

Devon port among south coast sites examined by Home Office staff amid calls for legal challenge to policy

Plymouth could become the latest site chosen for a giant vessel to house asylum seekers amid calls for the Home Office to be challenged in the courts over the policy.

The Devon port is one of several places along the south coast that have been examined by Home Office staff, according to Whitehall and maritime sources.

In a further development, the mayor of Portland in Dorset, where Rishi Sunak’s government will site a first barge for asylum seekers later this month, has questioned if plans to restrict their movement are legal.

Sunak announced at the weekend that two more giant vessels would be used to house about 1,000 people seeking asylum in the UK, but declined to say where. One is expected to be moored in Birkenhead near Liverpool.

Sources said that the plan to place a vessel in Teesport, near Middlesbrough, had not been confirmed. Asylum seekers could be housed in vessels moored near Newcastle, Harwich in Essex and Felixstowe in Suffolk, the Guardian disclosed.

Officials have examined the possibility of mooring a barge or a cruise ship near Plymouth and have been mulling over potential difficulties.

A local maritime insider said: “It’s not impossible to put an accommodation barge in Plymouth, but it’s difficult to see where without interfering with vital port services and operations.”

Carralyn Parkes, the Labour mayor of Portland, has lived on the Dorset island for 25 years.

She said she had been told by Home Office staff that there would be tight restrictions on the movement of asylum seekers, and questioned if those restrictions would be within the UN refugee convention.

“Each refugee who wishes to leave the compound will have to go through three checkpoints and will have to be accompanied by staff as they enter and exit the port.

“This is because it will still be a functioning commercial harbour and those people staying on the barge will have to keep within a limited area.

“They cannot just get up and walk out of the front door as they could if they were in a community. It contravenes the sprit of the 1951 convention on refugees and its 1967 protocol,” she told the Guardian.

Armed police are seen on vessels inside Portland port prior to the arrival of the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge on Thursday.
Armed police are seen on vessels inside Portland port prior to the arrival of the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge on Thursday. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

A senior Home Office official told residents in Portland on Tuesday that the barge – the Bibby Stockholm – was being refitted at a dry dock in Falmouth in Cornwall before being towed to Portland ready to house its first residents in the last week of June.

The port owners are insisting the asylum seekers will be allowed to leave the port only by bus, which will take them to pre-arranged drop-off points including locations for activities and voluntary work.

Dorset council, which is opposing the plans, had ruled out legal action after reviewing specialist legal advice, it said in a statement.

Waleed Sheikh, a partner at the human rights law firm Leigh Day, said restricting the movement of asylum seekers may be open to a challenge in the courts.

“The government’s approach of isolating and severely restricting the movement of people, many of whom will be vulnerable and whose only fault is to seek sanctuary in this country, is one-eyed and a show of utter indifference to their welfare. It is also potentially unlawful,” he said.

The mayor of London on Thursday wrote to Suella Braverman outlining his “strong opposition” to “unsafe and unworkable” proposals to moor refugee accommodation close to London City airport.

Sadiq Khan said in a statement that he had written to the home secretary to outline opposition to proposals to use London as the location of barges to accommodate those seeking asylum.

“We were recently approached by the Home Office asking to use the Royal Docks as a location for a barge. To be clear, these plans would be unsafe and unworkable, and they risk the health and wellbeing of already highly vulnerable people,” he said.

London’s Royal Docks said it had informed the Home Office last month that the waters beside the airport would not be appropriate as a potential location.

Scott Derben, the managing director of the Royal Docks Management Authority, told PA Media: “London’s Royal Docks were approached by the Home Office to look at the feasibility of berthing a cruise ship to house asylum seekers.

“After investigation, it was concluded that this would not be an appropriate use for the Royal Docks. The Home Office were informed of this decision in May.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The use of expensive hotels to house asylum seekers crossing the Channel is unacceptable, and must end. Alternative accommodation options, including barges, will save the British taxpayer money.

“We will continue to meet our legal obligations and responsibilities to those being accommodated on the barge, as we do for asylum seekers living in other accommodation, subject to the safety requirements placed on all visitors to Portland port.”


Rajeev Syal and Pippa Crerar

The GuardianTramp

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