London: UK’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman is under mounting pressure on Saturday over the government’s plan to house asylum seekers on a large barge docked in south-west England after the first set of migrants had to be removed just days after being moved in over a dangerous bacteria outbreak.
The Bibby Stockholm, a floating vessel docked at Portland in Dorset, opened to its first set of migrants earlier this week amid controversy as human rights groups questioned its suitability as a long-term accommodation.
However, the government insisted that it was an essential part of its plans to address the soaring taxpayer-funded hotel bills to house migrants while their asylum claims are processed.
But on Friday it emerged that bacteria which causes legionnaires’ disease, a kind of pneumonia, was found in the water supply and all 39 migrants had to be moved out to alternate accommodation.
“The health and welfare of asylum seekers remains of the utmost priority. All asylum seekers accommodated on the Bibby Stockholm have now been disembarked as a precaution and moved to alternative accommodation,” a UK Home Office spokesperson said.
“The Home Office and our contractors are following all protocol and advice from Dorset Council’s environmental health team, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and Dorset NHS who we are working closely with,” the spokesperson said.
It has triggered a barrage of criticism, including from within Braverman’s own Conservative Party, with some dubbing it a farce.
“This is deeply troubling, and rapidly turning into a farce that the Home Office can ill afford,” Tory MP Tim Loughton, a former minister, told ‘The Daily Telegraph’.
“Given the importance of the project, it was important that every risk assessment was performed before the people were put on the barge. Given the delays, there are serious questions as to why they were not done and what comeback there is on the contractors or whoever is responsible for signing it off for habitation,” he said.
Scott Benton, a former Conservative MP who now sits as an independent, took to social media to describe the barge as a “complete and utter farce”.
“As if having porous borders isn’t bad enough, we can’t even move 39 illegal immigrants onto a barge properly,” he tweeted.
The Opposition Labour Party has also been mounting the pressure, with shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock posing the question on Twitter: “Has anyone seen Suella Braverman?” “The government has very serious questions to answer on this, particularly around how much they knew about the risk or actual presence of legionella when they chose to press ahead with sending the asylum-seekers on to the barge,” the Labour MP said.
Campaigners from groups such as “No To The Barge” have also called for UK immigration minister Robert Jenrick to stand down from his government position after declaring just earlier this week that the barge was “perfectly decent accommodation”.
The UK’s Fire Brigades Union reacted to the news of migrants being temporarily removed from the Bibby Stockholm to reiterate their own safety concerns.
“The Fire Brigades Union warned the Home Secretary that forcibly holding migrants on this barge was a huge health and safety risk. We wrote to Suella Braverman more than a week ago to demand a meeting to discuss these issues,” said Ben Selby, FBU assistant general secretary.
“It remains our professional view that it’s a potential death trap and an accident waiting to happen. However, Suella Braverman and her ministerial colleagues are hellbent on confining vulnerable people in jail-like conditions on what is effectively a prison ship. This outbreak of Legionella suggests that it’s only a matter of time before either lives are lost or there is serious harm to a detainee,” he said.
The evacuation comes as the number of migrants crossing the English Channel illegally on small boats crossed 100,000 since 2018.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made “stop the boats” one of his government’s top priorities as he pledged to clamp down on migrants landing up on the country’s shores illegally and facilitating their swift removal through so-called returns agreements with European countries such as Albania.