The Government hopes to see asylum seekers housed on a barge off the Dorset coast “as quickly as possible” and denied it would have an impact on local services, a minister has said.
Richard Holden, a transport minister, suggested that the first cohort of migrants who have arrived on UK shores could be housed on a three-storey barge in Dorset’s Portland Harbour within months.
The Home Office yesterday confirmed plans to house around 500 asylum seekers on the barge as part of the Government’s efforts to end the use of expensive hotels and deter Channel crossings.
The Bibby Stockholm vessel was previously used in the Netherlands to house about 500 asylum seekers in the early 2000s.
Asked how soon the vessel, which is currently being towed from Italy to the UK, could be used, Mr Holden told Sky News: “I can’t give you a definite date and time on it, but this is what we’re hoping to do. We’re hoping to do it as quickly as possible.”
Pushed on whether the barge could be in operation by the summer, he added: “It could even be sooner than that, it might be a little bit further away, but this is something we’re really keen to get on top of it.”
He insisted that the barge was not “a type of prison” and that residents would be allowed to leave, but denied that the asylum seekers housed there would impact local residents in Portland where it will be moored.
“One of the issues that a lot of people are worried about is what are the impacts they’ll have on local services,” he continued.
“One of the things that we’re going to ensure with all of these sites is things like doctors facilities, they will have on-site so that they can be processed there and looked after on-site without the need to impact on local communities.”
The plans are facing a growing backlash from local politicians, with one MP telling i that he was preparing to mount a legal challenge over the Home Secretary’s failure to consult local officials.
Pete Roper, the Mayor of Portland, said that he was not convinced by the minister’s claims that the barge would not impact local services and communities.
“I don’t totally believe it. I must say we’ve had very little consultation, if any, with the Home Office and the port authority,” he said.
“As we understand it isn’t a prison and, although the port is a secure area, that these individuals will not be able to be detained on that within that area and that they will be allowed out to other areas.”
He said the local authorities had “heard different a different story to what the minister spoke about this morning” and there had been “limited consultation” with Dorset Council about the plans.
Richard Drax, the Tory MP for South Dorset, has said he is speaking to lawyers about a potential legal challenge over the barge plans after the Home Secretary selected his constituency “without consultation”.
He told i that Ms Braverman rang him up “out of the blue” last week to inform him of the plans and that she was unsympathetic about concerns over an influx of migrants on the seaside town.
“The message that was delivered was: it’s coming. We don’t have a choice,” he said. “As far as I gather, the talks with the private port company have been ongoing for a while. But there’s been no consultation with anybody at all. It’s literally been behind closed doors.”
Mr Drax said he was “very concerned about a whole range of issues” raised by the barge plans, including potential welfare concerns over migrants’ conditions onboard and a lack of local infrastructure to accommodate them.