By Sam Tobin
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain said on Tuesday it would return asylum seekers to a barge on its southern coast as opponents of the policy argued in court that such housing was unlawful.
In an embarrassment for the Conservative government’s immigration policy, legionella bacteria was detected in the water system of the Bibby Stockholm barge in August, just days after dozens of asylum seekers had been moved on.
Following safety tests, the government has started sending letters to asylum seekers confirming they will be moved to the barge, an interior ministry spokesperson said.
The government wants to cut the 8 million pounds ($9.8 million) per day bill of housing migrants in hotels while asylum claims are processed.
But critics have called the barge, which can house up to 500 men, inhumane and compared it to a prison ship.
Carralyn Parkes, a member of Portland Town Council, argues accommodating asylum seekers on the barge breaches planning law.
Her lawyers said in filings at London’s High Court that the government failed to properly assess the impact of “overcrowded and cramped conditions” and fire risks on asylum seekers’ health.
Alex Goodman, representing Parkes, added that a government assessment of housing asylum seekers on the barge breached equality laws.
“Segregating non-British people in housing separate from the British population raises links to racial segregation that is so obnoxious as to be something obviously required to be considered in discharging the (public sector equality duty),” he argued.
Government lawyers are opposing the challenge, arguing that there has not been any breach of planning laws and that its environmental and equality assessments were lawfully done.
The vessel is one part of Britain’s high-profile strategy to stop asylum seekers crossing the Channel on small boats from France.
A separate plan to deport such migrants to Rwanda is being tested in Britain’s Supreme Court this week where the government is trying to overturn a ruling that declared it unlawful.
The lawyer for some asylum seekers argued on Tuesday that no assurances could be given that would allow Rwanda to be considered a safe third country.
Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, also told a fringe event at the party’s annual conference on Tuesday that his party will abandon the Rwanda plan if they win power.
“The Rwanda policy is utterly unworkable, unaffordable and unethical,” he said.
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(Reporting by Sachin Ravikumar, Sam Tobin and Michael Holden in London and Andrew MacAskill in Liverpool; Editing by Kate Holton and Andrew Cawthorne)