Over decades of service as a floating hotel, the Bibby Stockholm has accommodated all manner of people. It has housed workers for a Swedish wind farm and for the new Shetland gas plant; homeless people in Hamburg, asylum seekers in Rotterdam. It was briefly considered as a ‘high-end’ barge for students: with 222 en-suite rooms, a restaurant, TV room and gym, it was touted to Irish universities as a floating hall of residence. It makes sense, then, that the government considers the vessel a suitable place to house asylum seekers – given that Britain has so few large residential spaces available.
But the mooring of the Bibby Stockholm in Portland harbour has triggered yet another round of hysterical outrage. Ministers have been accused of ‘gratuitous cruelty’ and taking ‘pleasure from the misery of others’. Lawyers acting for 25 of the asylum seekers have so far prevented them from being put on board the vessel. The plan is that most refugees will share rooms in this basic accommodation – but that is hardly a human rights abuse.
This furore gives Rishi Sunak an opportunity to make the case for a sensible and moral settlement on the issue of refugees. At the last count, 170,000 asylum seekers were waiting for their cases to be heard, of whom almost 130,000 have been waiting more than six months. Some have been waiting for well over a year. This delay is indefensible. Failing to deal swiftly with new arrivals (instead forcing them to live in hotels at taxpayers’ expense) is unfair to the taxpayer and the claimant alike – a waste of money and of life. Meanwhile, word spreads that anyone who arrives in the UK, legally or not, stands little realistic chance of being deported.
If Sunak wishes to lift the burden of paying for accommodation, he could allow asylum seekers to work to support themselves – on the understanding that the situation changes if their appeal fails.