Rishi Sunak hails mega-barge being towed from Italy to Dorset to house 500 migrants as 'value for money'

5 April 2023, 14:16 | Updated: 6 April 2023, 09:21

The 'mega-barge' will be used to house channel migrants while their asylum claims are processed
The 'mega-barge' will be used to house channel migrants while their asylum claims are processed. Picture: Getty

By Chris Samuel

Rishi Sunak has hailed plans to tow a giant barge from Italy to Dorset to house 500 asylum seekers after the Home Office announced the plans yesterday.

The vessel, which has been leased by the government, will accommodate around 500 migrants in Portland Port, Dorset. The government says it will be cheaper than keeping them in hotels and is 'exploring' the option of more boats.

The Prime Minister used an appearance yesterday to tout the plan as part of his pledge to stop small boats crossing the English Channel, saying it would "save the taxpayer money" and "reduce pressure on hotels".

The Home Office says housing migrants currently costs £6m per day and Mr Sunak added that this plan is also a "fair" approach dealing with small boats.

The barge, called Bibby Stockholm, will be berthed in Portland Port and will accommodate about 500 men whilst their asylum claims are processed.

It will provide "basic and functional accommodation", healthcare, catering facilities and 24/7 security.

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Berthing the barge will cost around £4,500 per day, plus the £15,000-a-day cost of chartering it from UK-based vessel owner and operator Bibby Marine.

But the Home Office is not expected provide a timeframe for when migrants would be moved onto the "flotel" due to a number of operational obstacles yet to be overcome. The Government says they will be housed there 'in the coming months.'

The 'flotel' is capable of housing over 500 people
The 'flotel' is capable of housing over 500 people. Picture: PA

The Bibby Stockholm will be operational for at least 18 months and will stay berthed in the port during that time.

The Home Office said "urgent action is needed to reduce expensive hotel use, with the sites providing much needed accommodation."

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said: “The Home Secretary and I have been clear that the use of expensive hotels to house those making unnecessary and dangerous journeys must stop. We will not elevate the interests of illegal migrants over the British people we are elected to serve.

A pool table onboard the Bibby Stockholm
A pool table onboard the Bibby Stockholm. Picture: PA

“We have to use alternative accommodation options, as our European neighbours are doing – including the use of barges and ferries to save the British taxpayer money and to prevent the UK becoming a magnet for asylum shoppers in Europe.

“All accommodation will meet our legal obligations and we will work closely with the local community to address their concerns, including through financial support.”

Interior of the vessel, which will be towed from Italy to a port in Dover
Interior of the vessel, which will be towed from Italy to a port in Dover. Picture: PA
Berthing the barge will cost around £4,500 per day, plus the £15,000-a-day cost of chartering it
Berthing the barge will cost around £4,500 per day, plus the £15,000-a-day cost of chartering it . Picture: PA

Sources told The Times the Bibby Stockholm barge was in the city of Genoa, in northern Italy, and would be towed to Britain by tugs.

It will require a refitting to get it ready to house migrants.

The Government is expected to pay Dorset council around £3,500 for each migrant housed there, for support services such as welfare and healthcare.

Those living on it will be free to come and go, but they'll have to be transported via bus to the port’s entry each time they want to leave.

The vessel has recently undergone refurbishment following an inspection by a regulator that described it as an “aggressive and oppressive environment” after being used by the Dutch government to accommodate asylum seekers some years ago.

Portland Harbour and the Isle of Portland, Dorset
Portland Harbour and the Isle of Portland, Dorset. Picture: Getty

In 2014, it was used by energy services firm Petrofac, when its employees were constructing a gas plant in Shetland. It said the vessel was of "excellent" quality and that “public facilities were well received” among their workers.

But it's faced local opposition, with Conservative-run Dorset council opposed to Portland Port being used as the site, and Richard Drax, the Tory MP for South Dorset, calling for the idea to be scrapped.

Mr Drax said the barge was being “dumped on our door” without consultation by the Home Office and urged Braverman to drop the plan.

“Every option’s being looked at, including legal action,” he said.

“We want to get this consigned to the dustbin before anything’s signed. We want to activate ourselves and say, ‘Look, home secretary, sorry, this is not the right place, can you please cancel this’.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman
Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Picture: Getty

A spokesperson for Bibby Marine said the firm is “a provider of practical, safe and comfortable accommodation solutions for a wide range of clients across the globe”.

They added: “Due to legal agreements, we cannot provide any details on individual charter agreements.

“Our floating accommodation barges offer a cost-effective solution for those in need of good-quality accommodation. All have been refurbished to a high standard, catering to the safety and comfort of residents.

“The Bibby Stockholm offers en suite rooms, all with windows, which can be configured to suit client’s needs. Each room has a bed, desk, storage and en suite facilities.

"On board there is a laundry, canteen, and social spaces. The Bibby Stockholm has been refurbished and has comfortably housed workers from various industries including construction, marine and the armed forces over the years.”