First migrants board asylum seeker barge as Tory plan descends into chaos

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Migrants boarded the vessel today (Image: PA)
Migrants boarded the vessel today (Image: PA)

The first asylum seekers arrived on a migrant barge today as the Tory plan to house them descended into chaos.

A small number of migrants boarded the Bibby Stockholm after weeks of delays. Home Office Minister Sarah Dines claimed up to 500 could join the vessel by Saturday. "Yes, quite possibly it will be 500. We are hoping," she told the BBC.

However, she was slapped down by No10 with the Prime Minister’s spokesman dismissing the claim. He said: “That is about the upward capacity of the Bibby Stockholm rather than the numbers we are looking to get in by the end of the week. Numbers will increase over time as you would expect for any new asylum facility."

More than 15,000 migrants have arrived in the UK on small inflatables so far this year after crossing the Channel, Government figures show. Some 339 people made the journey on Friday and Saturday, taking the provisional total for 2023 to date to 15,071.

Ministers want up to 500 asylum seekers to eventually be housed on the 305ft Bibby Stockholm - despite concerns from the Fire Brigades Union over the barge designed to house about 200. The 1970s-built, 10,659-ton vessel with 222 cabins was towed to the Isle of Portland, Dorset, last month but plans to move migrants onto the barge have been delayed amid safety fears.

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First migrants board asylum seeker barge as Tory plan descends into chaosThe first migrants boarded this morning (Getty Images)

Amnesty International UK's refugee and migrant rights director, Steve Valdez-Symonds, said: "It seems there's nothing this Government won't do to make people seeking asylum feel unwelcome and unsafe in this country. Reminiscent of the prison hulks from the Victorian era, the Bibby Stockholm is an utterly shameful way to house people who've fled terror, conflict and persecution. Housing people on a floating barge is likely to be retraumatising and there should be major concerns about confining each person to living quarters the typical size of a car parking space."

Care4Calais chief executive Steve Smith, said that “to house any human being in a ‘quasi floating prison’ like the Bibby Stockholm is inhumane”. He added: “Human beings should be housed in communities, not barges. The Government could just get on with processing people’s asylum claims, instead they are playing to a gallery that seems to thrive on human suffering.”

Shadow Immigration Minister Stephen Kinnock has confirmed Labour would house migrants on barges for a "very short" period while a backlog of asylum bids is tackled.

Meanwhile, desperate Tories are reviving plans to send migrants 4,000 miles away to Ascension Island. The volcanic isle could house an asylum processing centre as Conservatives look for ways to slash the number of small boats making the perilous crossing over the Channel.

The idea was scrapped three years ago but now ministers are studying it again amid a legal row over their bid to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Judges are due to rule on whether moving migrants to the east African country is legal.

But while courts weigh up the decision, the Home Office is resurrecting proposals to send them to the rocky British Overseas Territory of Ascension Island in the South Atlantic instead. Ms Dines told Times Radio: "We're pretty confident that Rwanda is a lawful policy … so that's what we're focusing on.

“But like any responsible government, we look at additional measures, so we're looking at everything to make sure our policy works. We need to reduce the pull factor of illegal criminal gangs, getting people to this country basically abusing the system."

Ms Dines claimed "times change" when asked why the Ascension Island plan was being reconsidered after being rejected by even Boris Johnson's former government. Speaking to Sky News, she insisted: "Well, times change, we look at all possibilities. This crisis in the Channel is urgent, we need to look at all possibilities and that is what we are doing.

"We are determined to make sure there isn't the pull factor for illegal migrants to come to this country, basically to be abused by criminal organised gangs. These are international operations and they have got to stop."

However, Whitehall sources played down the chances of a deal being struck with Ascension Island to accept migrants who reached UK shores.

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Ben Glaze

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