Britain unveils plans to house asylum seekers in disused military bases

Pro-immigration campaigners protesting outside the Houses of Parliament in London, on March 27, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON – Britain plans to temporarily house asylum seekers in disused military bases and could use ferries and barges in the future in a bid to reduce hotel bills, Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick announced on Wednesday.

He told MPs that the government planned to house “several thousand” asylum seekers at repurposed barracks and portable buildings at two former Royal Air Force bases in south-east and eastern England.

A separate site on private land in East Sussex in south-east England will also be used, Mr Jenrick added.

The government is also exploring the “possibility of accommodating migrants in vessels” such as ferries and barges as it looks to reduce a £2.3 billion (S$3.7 billion) annual bill for hotel accommodation.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping illegal crossings of the English Channel one of his priorities, and Mr Jenrick said the prospect of hotel accommodation was a draw for those making the dangerous journeys.

“These hotels take valuable assets from communities and place pressures on local public services,” he told MPs, adding “we must not elevate the well-being of illegal migrants above those of the British people”.

“Accommodation for migrants should meet their essential living needs and nothing more, because we cannot risk becoming a magnet for the millions of people who are displaced and seeking better economic prospects,” the minister said.

But the plans face opposition from charities, who branded the accommodation “grossly inadequate”. The Labour Party’s Shadow Interior Minister Yvette Cooper called the proposals an “admission of failure”.

‘Entirely unsuitable’

The government also appears set to encounter legal challenges on using the airfields from local councils run by their own Conservative Party.

The use of ferries and barges appears to be further into the future as none have been purchased yet, with a government source saying those plans were part of the “direction of travel”.

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab on Wednesday called barges “one possible option”, telling Sky News that the prospect of hotel accommodation was a “perverse incentive” to make the dangerous sea channel crossing.

The Refugee Council said it was “deeply concerned” by the plans, calling the proposed accommodation “entirely unsuitable”.

“These sites are wholly inadequate places to house vulnerable men, women and children who have come to our country in search of safety,” said Mr Enver Solomon, the charity’s chief executive.

“We must ensure that people fleeing war, conflict and persecution can access safe, dignified and appropriate accommodation while in the UK asylum system,” he said.

Amnesty International UK’s Steve Valdez-Symonds said asylum seekers “should be treated with basic human dignity, not corralled on barges or other grossly inadequate and isolated accommodation”.

Mr Sunak told his ministers at a weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that the cost of using hotels was not sustainable. AFP

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