UK Refugees Board a Controversial Barge Which Stands as an Indicator of a Worldwide Housing Emergency

Photo Credit: Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

With the Tory government’s raison d’être in championing Brexit was to control Britain’s migration and “turn back the boats”, it is with a sense of irony that asylum-seekers have boarded a controversial barge moored in southern England Monday. This boat, named Bibby Stockholm, is docked in Portland, on the Dorset coast of southwest England.

The barge, which is owned by UK-based Bibby Marine, is normally used to provide temporary housing for workers when local accommodation isn’t available.

“Accommodation is offered to individuals on a no-choice basis,” said Cheryl Avery, director for asylum accommodation at the UK Home Office, who added that minor legal challenges had come up but would remain undisclosed.

This housing of refugees from the Middle East and Africa comes with extensive weight both fiscally and logistically. It serves as a major topic of debate as to what can ultimately be done to mitigate the worldwide housing crisis. As of late 2022, more than 1.8 billion people do not have access to adequate housing.

Plans announced by the UK government in April to house around 500 people, mostly men, on the vessel struck a political nerve in Britain, where the Home Office has ramped up hostile policies towards refugees in a bid to reduce the number of small boat crossings in the face of the European migrant crisis.

“We have had a few challenges, but this is part of an ongoing structured process to bring a cohort of up to 500 people on board. There have been some challenges – some minor legal challenges – and I can’t go into the detail of those, but accommodation is offered to individuals on a no-choice basis,” Avery told reporters Monday.

Several groups have flagged safety concerns over the Bibby Stockholm. It was called a ‘death trap’ by the UK’s Fire Brigades Union (FBU) on Wednesday. And Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, warned that respiratory infections were more likely to spread in cramped spaces with narrow corridors and doorways.

“Generally respiratory infections, as we’ve all learnt through the pandemic … are at higher risk in confined settings with poorer ventilation, so the sorts of things we look at is what the ventilation is like,” she told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” show on Monday.

The agency will visit the barge to assess the “infection prevention control” once migrants are on board, Harries said, adding: “We know that the accommodation complies with marine standards, which is what has been agreed is correct for that particular accommodation.”

Controversial barges and military camps will still be used temporarily to house asylum seekers if Labour wins the next election, a member of Keir Starmer’s frontbench has said.

The shadow immigration minister, Stephen Kinnock, said the idea made him “deeply unhappy” as it was the last thing the party wanted to do. But he said Labour would have “no choice but to deal with the mess we inherit”.