The Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge is pictured moored to the quayside at Portland Port in Portland, on the south-west coast of England on August 8, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

LONDON: The British government on Monday began housing asylum seekers on a hulking barge moored on the Dorset Coast in an effort to cut down on the high costs of housing migrants in hotels — currently running at about $7.6 million a day - and to deter others from attempting the dangerous English Channel crossing.

The arrival of a small group of asylum seekers onto the football-field-sized Bibby Stockholm, an engineless barge registered in Barbados, was a highly symbolic moment in Britain’s debate over migration.

The government wants to use barges and former military facilities to address a recent surge in irregular entry.

More than 45,000 people last year made the crossing from northern France to England - up sharply from 300 in 2018. The numbers for the first half of 2023 have dipped slightly, but it’s unclear whether that is because of recent policy efforts or the season’s strong winds and choppy seas.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to “stop the boats,” one of his key priorities before the next general election, to be held by January 2025. The crossing is only about 20 miles, but it goes through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world - a journey that can be deadly.

The arrival Monday of the first tranche of migrants to the barge in Portland on the English Channel followed days of delays. The move-in date was expected last week but was pushed back after firefighters warned that the vessel was a “potential deathtrap.” Officials say the barge has completed its safety checks.

The Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge is pictured moored to the quayside at Portland Port in Portland. Image Credit: AFP

The barge, owned by a Liverpool-based company, looms three stories high and 305 feet long. The British government has retrofitted it with bunk beds to house 500 male migrants in its 222 rooms. Fifteen men moved in on Monday; more are expected in the coming days.

The government says it’s cheaper to house migrants on barges than in hotels but that it will affect only the small number who are waiting for decisions on their asylum applications.

Disabled people

More than 50,000 migrants were being housed in hotels as of June this year, the government reported Monday, at a cost of about 6 million pounds ($7.6 million) per day.

The use of barges to house migrants has proved contentious. Some neighbors in Plymouth say they’re worried about the impact on the community and local services; others have called it a “floating prison” and say that it’s no way to house migrants.

Steve Smith, executive officer of Care4Calais, said the refugee charity’s lawyers helped to stop about 20 people from being moved onto the barge.

“Amongst our clients are people who are disabled, who have survived torture and modern slavery and who have had traumatic experiences at sea,” Smith said. “To house any human being in a ‘quasi floating prison’ like the Bibby Stockholm is inhumane. To try and do so with this group of people is unbelievably cruel.”

Steve Valdez-Symonds, the refugee and migrant rights director at Amnesty International UK, said the vessel was “reminiscent of the prison hulks from the Victorian era” and an “utterly shameful way to house people who’ve fled terror, conflict and persecution.”

“Housing people on a floating barge is likely to be re-traumatizing,” he said. “There should be major concerns about confining each person to living quarters the typical size of a car parking space.”