In a setback for the Conservative government, a barge that was recently designated as accommodation for asylum seekers had to be evacuated due to the presence of Legionella bacteria in its water supply. The government’s hard-line approach to migration, including providing basic housing for those arriving in the UK from France, has faced criticism. The government claims that this measure will reduce the cost of accommodating asylum seekers in hotels, which is estimated to be £6 million a day. However, critics argue that the use of the barge is a populist move to appeal to right-wing voters ahead of a possible election next year. The barge, named the Bibby Stockholm, is located at Portland Port in Dorset, on England’s southern coast, and began accepting residents earlier this week.
The Home Office, the government department responsible for migration, stated on Friday that samples from the water system on the Bibby Stockholm showed levels of Legionella bacteria that require further investigation. As a precautionary measure, all 39 asylum seekers aboard the barge were being disembarked while further assessments are carried out. The Home Office assured that there were no individuals on board displaying symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal respiratory condition caused by Legionella bacteria, and that appropriate advice and support were being provided to the asylum seekers. However, Care4Calais, a refugee support charity, reported that three men remained on the barge and had not been informed about the Legionella outbreak. The charity claimed that it was left to their caseworkers to inform them to avoid using the water.
The contaminated water samples were found in the vessel’s internal systems and did not pose a direct risk to the wider community of Portland, according to the Home Office. This discovery raises concerns about the public health risks associated with housing a large number of asylum seekers on a barge. On Thursday, British media reported that one person with latent tuberculosis had been informed that they would be transferred to the Bibby Stockholm, further adding to the embarrassment of having to evacuate the vessel shortly after its operation began. The government’s hard-line approach, aimed at deterring people from crossing from France on small, often unseaworthy boats, has faced challenges. Their migration policy of flying some asylum seekers to Rwanda before their cases are evaluated is currently blocked due to a legal judgment that is being appealed by the government. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has prioritized stopping small-boat arrivals, and the government had designated this week as “small boats week.” Despite these measures, crossings continue, with the total number of migrants who have made the journey since 2018 surpassing 100,000 earlier this week.