What is it about floating accommodation that inspires hysteria, unless it is a cruise liner? The Bibby Stockholm, a barge that the Government is using to house asylum seekers, has become emblematic of a failed policy and the focus of activists seeking to undermine Britain’s efforts to control illegal migration.
We’ve been here before, In 1997, the then Tory-run Home Office ordered a floating barge to accommodate prisoners because of severe pressures on the system. It was called the Bibby Resolution, a sister ship of the Bibby Stockholm currently causing such consternation, and was also moored at Portland in Dorset, where it was renamed HMP Weare. There were objections by prison campaigners, who likened the barge to the dismasted hulks moored in the Medway during the Napoleonic Wars. Magwitch once again loomed out of the mists.
Local people protested, as they are doing now, and Labour complained. But since the party was on the cusp of taking office, shadow ministers were mindful that the problem of where to put the overflow would soon be clogging up their in-tray, as it will be again if they win power next year. For that reason, Labour is today not actually prepared to say barges or camps or tents or hotels should not be used to house the small boat arrivals, only that the Government should not have got into the position where they are necessary.
Labour kept the floating prison until 2006 when it was sold to Nigeria. By that time, the prison population had risen from just under 60,000 when the party took office under Tony Blair to 80,000. The latest controversy surrounding a Portland barge is somewhat different in that the occupants are not prisoners, though you would be hard put to know that, judging by some of the hyperbole the issue has attracted, not just here but overseas.
The CNN website, under the headline “Asylum seekers board UK’s controversial ‘death trap’ housing barge”, reported that “public health experts warned of the possible risk of infection in living conditions that campaigners branded as inhumane”. It is hardly surprising that, given these accounts, some asylum seekers are resisting being moved to the barge. Yet it has been used in the past to house construction workers and was also deployed to the Falklands as a floating barracks. It is obviously not the Ritz but neither is it Dorset’s answer to the Marshalsea. In fact, the migrants are being moved out of hotels, where thousands have been placed for weeks as ministers struggled to cope with the influx. As Alex Chalk, the justice minister, put it, they cannot pick and choose between staying in four-star hotels and a barge.
The problem the Government faces is that its policy isn’t working. It is predicated on making it illegal to arrive in this country other than by lawful routes and then deporting the migrants to Rwanda. So far the detention powers in the much-contested Illegal Migration Act have not been used. If the idea were to send migrants to Rwanda in order to process applications for asylum, and then resettle in the UK those whose cases were well-founded, this might be feasible. But that is not the plan. The proposal is that they should be sent to Rwanda and then resettled there or sent back to their home country. This is a breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which contains the principle of non-refoulement – an absolute bar on repatriating a refugee to a country where they might face persecution. This is why the Government will almost certainly lose the case in the Supreme Court when it appeals against last month’s ruling by judges that it is unlawful to send asylum seekers to Rwanda on precisely these grounds.
The court ruled that there was a real risk that people would be returned to their home countries, where they face persecution or other inhumane treatment, when they had a good claim for asylum. Arguing that many of them are, in reality, economic migrants who are not fleeing for their lives is not going to work. Many dispose of their identity documents and concoct stories (with the help of some unscrupulous lawyers now being targeted by the Government) to say that they are at risk if returned. Sometimes it is not clear where they have come from and, if it is, their countries refuse to take them back. Even if the Rwanda transfers are ruled lawful, they will affect just a small proportion of arrivals, although it may act as a deterrent and reduce the traffic, as intended.
Nonetheless, the policy looks dead in the water, so what is the alternative both to stopping the boats and housing the migrants? Clearing the backlog of extant asylum cases would clearly help, but they number more than 100,000 so that will take ages. The Home Office appears to be cutting people from the list for failing to meet certain conditions, but that does not help with where to put them. If they cannot claim refugee status, they may never be able to work, at least not legally, and will become a burden on the state unless removed. The weather has helped by making crossings more difficult, with around 350 arriving this month so far. Nearly 2,000 came across in the same period last year. Rishi Sunak, sunning himself in California, must pray that England’s unseasonable and stormy summer continues.
But if not Rwanda, then where? Someone in Whitehall has floated the idea of Ascension Island. As a British territory, this is less likely to be struck down by the courts, provided the asylum applications were properly processed and successful refugees were settled back in the UK. Those who failed could be deported, though, again, it is not always clear where they came from. It would also be hugely expensive and take time to set up a processing regime, even if there is an RAF/US base there already. There are largely uninhabited islands aplenty closer to home that could be used, though the good people of Lundy (population 28) or Eigg (110) might object. For many years, Australia processed its asylum applications on the island of Nauru and successfully reduced the illegal traffic into the country. It is, like the UK, party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. If Australia can do it, why can’t we?