he Government has been accused of “disastrous failure” over its pledge to stop migrants crossing the Channel in small boats after asylum seekers started to board a barge moored in Dorset.
Campaigners were seen waving at coaches carrying passengers as they drove into Portland Port on Monday, while pictures showed men with luggage accompanied by staff in high-vis jackets as they walked up a gangway onto the barge moored on the Dorset coast.
Cheryl Avery, the Home Office’s director for asylum accommodation, said 15 people have been moved onto the vessel so far as part of the Government’s bid to cut the cost of hotel bills by finding other accommodation, which also includes former military bases.
Ms Avery told broadcasters: “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.”
Ms Avery said there have been “some minor legal challenges” but would not comment on the detail of them, adding accommodation is offered on a “no choice” basis.
Care4Calais said around 20 asylum seekers did not board the barge as planned because their transfers were “cancelled” after lawyers challenged the decisions.
In a series of legal letters to the Home Office, solicitors raised concerns about the suitability of the accommodation for people with disabilities, mental and physical health problems as well as those who had fled torture and persecution, according to the refugee charity.
Labour accused the Government of “disastrous failure” over its pledge to stop the boats after official figures confirmed the number of migrants staying in hotels has passed 50,000.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the data showed a “shocking” 25% increase from 40,000 in December, when Rishi Sunak promised to end the placement of asylum seekers in hotel accommodation.
Some 50,546 migrants were being housed in hotels as of June this year, according to latest Home Office figures released on Monday.
Ms Cooper said: “Rishi Sunak is failing to fix the Tories’ boats chaos and the Conservatives are just flailing around chasing headlines rather than getting a grip.
“The Prime Minister admitted last December that hotel use was a serious problem and promised to end it, but instead since then it has gone up by a truly shocking 25% with more asylum hotels still opening, and the taxpayer having to pay billions more pounds as a result.
“This is the direct consequence of Tory mismanagement and their disastrous failure to speed up asylum decisions or clear the backlog, which is still at a record high.”
Asylum seekers placed in UK hotels began receiving letters telling them they would be moved to the Bibby Stockholm at the end of July.
It could near its 500-person capacity by the end of the week, Home Office minister Sarah Dines suggested.
Downing Street later rolled back on the suggestion and a spokesman insisted that the number of men on board would “progressively increase”.
Ms Dines told GB News: “It’s very exciting to start getting people out of the hotels onto other places like the Bibby Stockholm. It’s a very good idea and we are hoping for it to be quite shortly.”
But the plan has sparked a wave of criticism over conditions, with fears the barge could become a “floating Grenfell”.
Residents in Dorset have also expressed worries that the county’s services will not be able to cope with an influx of immigrants.
Anti-racism campaigners gathered near the barge on Monday morning to protest cramped conditions. An investigation has also been launched by Dorset Police after a number of local councillors and businesses received “threatening” letters from a far-right groups containing “threats to damage” property linked to vessel.
Ms Dines indicated that the number of people living on the vessel could increase rapidly.
Pressed on whether all of them could be on board by the end of the week, Ms Dines told the BBC: “Yes, quite possibly it will be 500. We are hoping.”
Ms Dines’ “excitement” comment echoed Home Secretary Suella Braverman saying she had a “dream” of seeing a flight taking off from Britain to Rwanda under the Government’s controversial deportation plans.
The proposal to remove asylum seekers who arrive in Britain by small boat to the east African country has been stalled by legal challenges that are now with the Supreme Court.
The Government hopes to the use of the barge, as well as Wethersfield airbase in Essex and RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, as housing for migrants in a bid to reduce the almost £6million-a-day spent on hotel bills.
It is also considering reviving plans to fly people who arrive by unauthorised means 4,000 miles to Ascension Island, according to multiple reports.
The proposals to use the British Overseas Territory are apparently being considered as a “plan B” if the Rwanda scheme fails.
Situated in the South Atlantic, the volcanic island could house an asylum processing centre as an attempt to reduce the number of small boats crossing the Channel.
The developments came during the Government’s “small boats week” in which it is making a series of announcements on the issue that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised to solve.
Penalties for people who assist migrants coming to UK by irregular means are to be hugely increased.
Fines for businesses who employ illegal immigrants will be increased up to a maximum of £45,000 per worker for a first breach and £60,000 for repeat offenders, tripling both from the last increase in 2014.
Landlords who house them face fines going from £1,000 per occupier to £10,000, with repeat breaches going from £3,000 to £20,000.
Shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds was non-committal when asked on Monday whether Labour supports the use of barges to house asylum seekers.
Asked if Labour endorses the use of the Bibby Stockholm, he said: “We do not wish to run and will not run an asylum system that requires the use of bases, barges or indeed of hotels, those are being used as additional accommodation because of the failure of the Conservatives to run our asylum system properly over many years.”
Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael MP said: “The public has no faith in this government to deal with the asylum system and who knows how long these barges will be in operation for.
“Local people don’t want them, they may not be safe, and knowing these Home Office Ministers, they will probably give up on them soon enough.”