Bibby Stockholm: Sunak committed to housing asylum seekers on barge

Rishi SunakImage source, PA Media

Image caption,

Rishi Sunak was asked about the Bibby Stockholm barge during a visit to a hospital in Buckinghamshire

By Joshua Nevett

BBC Politics

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said his government is still “committed” to using the Bibby Stockholm barge to house asylum seekers.

Last week, 39 asylum seekers were taken off the barge after Legionella bacteria was found in the on-board water system.

Mr Sunak said it was “right” to “go through all the checks” before asylum seekers were accommodated on the barge.

The barge is seen as a cheaper option to hotels for asylum seekers waiting the outcome of their claims.

The government eventually plans to house up to 500 men aged 18-65 on the vessel moored in Portland Port, Dorset.

But it lies empty for the time being, while the Home Office awaits the results of further tests for the Legionella bacteria, which can cause a type of pneumonia.

In his first interview since returning from a summer holiday in the United States, Mr Sunak was asked whether he was personally warned about potential health risks for asylum seekers on board the Bibby Stockholm.

In response, he said; “No, look, what’s happened here is that it’s right that we go through all the checks and procedures to ensure the health and wellbeing of the people who are being housed on the barge.”

He said it was unfair to expect taxpayers to cover the costs of housing asylum seekers in hotels across the UK.

“We’ve got to find alternatives to that, that’s what the barge is about, that’s why we’re committed to it,” Mr Sunak said.

The government says it is currently spending £6m per day housing more than 50,000 migrants in hotels.

The Home Office says that by the autumn, they aim to house about 3,000 asylum seekers in places that are not hotels – such as the barge, and former military sites Wethersfield, in Essex, and Scampton, in Lincolnshire.

But the government’s efforts to use these barges and sites have been hampered by legal challenges, local opposition and logistical issues.

Asylum applications have increased in the last couple of years, with the backlog of cases rising to more than 172,000 people, according to the latest Home Office figures.

Earlier, Health Minister Will Quince said asylum seekers could return to the Bibby Stockholm barge within days.

But he said the asylum seekers would only return to the barge if it was safe to do so, insisting “public health and safety is always our paramount concern”.

The arrival of people on small boats crossing the English Channel has been putting pressure on the asylum system.

More than 100,000 migrants have made the perilous journey across the Channel in small boats in the last five years, and more than 500 arrived on Saturday.

Migrant returns

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail and The Times reported that the European Commission has ruled out a deal that would allow migrants to be returned to EU countries.

Mr Sunak has pushed for a bilateral returns agreement with France, but President Emmanuel Macron believes any deal must be at an EU level.

A leaked memo reported by the two newspapers suggests such a pact is not being entertained by the EU, which is dealing with its own internal rows over migration and refugee returns reforms.

The Daily Mail says it has seen an internal British government memo which describes the outcome of the meeting between National Security Adviser Sir Tim Barrow and Bjoern Seibert – the head of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s cabinet.

The paper reported that the memo said Mr Seibert “stressed that the Commission is not open to a UK-EU readmissions agreement”.

But a European Commission spokesperson told the BBC the reports in the Times and Telegraph were “not correct”.

Mr Seibert “never made such a statement”, the spokesperson said.

The UK government said it “remains open” to working towards a UK-EU returns accord.

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