Britain begins returning asylum seekers to barge on southern coast

PORTLAND, England (Reuters) – Britain began returning asylum seekers to a barge on its southern coast on Thursday, two months after it was forced to remove them within a few days of boarding because Legionella bacteria was found in the vessel’s water supply.

The government, which wants to cut the 8 million pound ($9.7 million) daily bill of housing migrants in hotels while their asylum claims are processed, said its health, fire and water checks on the barge had been satisfactory.

The water contamination episode was an embarrassment for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has made cracking down on illegal migration a major priority ahead of a national election expected next year.

As part of its plan to deter people from arriving illegally in Britain, the government is moving migrants on to disused military sites and barges like the grey, three-story Bibby Stockholm in Portland which can house around 500 people in more than 200 bedrooms.

“The number of people on board  will increase gradually with more arrivals in the coming days and months, as part of a carefully structured, phased approach,” a spokesperson from Britain’s interior ministry, the Home Office, said.

Critics have called the barge inhumane and compared it to a prison ship.

“By using accommodation like barges and barracks, the government is stripping asylum seekers of their liberty,” Steve Smith, chief executive of refugee charity Care4Calais, said in a statement.

London’s High Court refused to give the go-ahead to a legal challenge against housing people on the barge earlier this month.

($1 = 0.8236 pounds)

(Reporting by Toby Melville, Writing by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Sachin Ravikumar)