Just four days ago, asylum seekers were moved onto an austere barge moored off the British coast as the government rolled out a new policy aimed at illustrating its tough approach on migration.
On Friday that vessel was evacuated, after bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease were found in the water system, leaving in disarray plans to showcase the government’s strategy.
The evacuation was an embarrassing end to what some in government had called “small boats week,” a publicity blitz intended to prove it was delivering on a promise to make changes that would stop migrants from crossing the English Channel in often unseaworthy vessels. Critics say it was also meant to appeal to right-wing voters ahead of a likely election next year.
But it also underscored deeper concerns about a divisive migration strategy that has so far failed to achieve its aims.
The week began with a flurry of policy announcements, interviews and social media posts from the government, including an enthusiastic prerecorded video from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was on vacation in California. The transfer of 15 asylum seekers onto the barge on Monday was intended to be the highlight. By Friday, 39 people were onboard.
The vessel, called the Bibby Stockholm, is moored at Portland Port in Dorset, on England’s southern coast. The government says that the barge, along with two more vessels and three military bases, will help cut the cost of housing 51,000 asylum seekers in hotels, which it estimates at 6 million pounds — about $7.6 million — a day.
In a statement on Friday, the Home Office, the government department responsible for migration, said that samples from the water system on the Bibby Stockholm had shown “levels of Legionella bacteria which require further investigation.”
All those who arrived on the barge this week were being disembarked as “a precautionary measure,” it said, “while further assessments are undertaken.”
The Home Office said that no individuals on board had presented with symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease — a sometimes fatal respiratory condition — and that asylum seekers were being provided with appropriate advice and support.
But Care4Calais, a charity that supports refugees, said that as of Friday afternoon three men remained on the Bibby Stockholm. “No one has told them anything about the Legionella outbreak and they are frantically trying to find staff on board. It’s been left to our caseworkers to tell them to avoid the water,” the charity said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
Legionella bacteria is commonly found in fresh water sources such as lakes and streams, where it usually poses no risk. But when it grows inside purpose-built plumbing, such as hot water tanks, shower heads and large water systems in hotels and offices, it becomes a concern.
Legionnaires’ disease is contracted when someone inhales aerosols — tiny droplets of water suspended in the air — that contain the bacteria. Certain conditions increase the risk from the bacteria, including the existence of rust, sludge and other deposits that support bacterial growth, and the storing and re-circulation of water, according to Britain’s Health and Safety Executive, a government agency.
The Home Office said that the contaminated samples came from water found in the barge’s internal systems and carried no direct risk for the wider community of Portland. The municipality, Dorset Council, said it was advising the government and environmental agencies in the wake of the results.
Neither it nor the Home Office would comment on when the test results were first available. Steve Smith, chief executive officer of Care4Calais, told Channel 4 News that water samples were taken on July 25 and that he believed the outcome was known on Monday.
The development will raise further concerns about the public health risks of housing large numbers of asylum seekers on a barge. When some individuals refused to move on board earlier this week, a Home Office minister, Robert Jenrick, insisted that it was a “perfectly decent accommodation” that had been used by other nations in a similar way.
In fact, the transfer of asylum seekers to the Bibby Stockholm was held up for several weeks because of fears over fire safety. Even after essential checks were carried out, the Fire Brigades Union, which represents rank-and-file firefighters, said barges were “a potential deathtrap,” and described the policy as “cruel and reckless.”
Part of the concern has focused on the number of people who might be brought aboard. The barge has 222 rooms but asylum seekers faced having to share them, and as many as 500 could ultimately be accommodated there.
The latest setback for the government comes as its flagship migration policy — flying some asylum seekers to Rwanda before their cases are assessed — is currently blocked by a legal judgment that the government is appealing.
Small boat crossings have meanwhile continued, with little sign that other policies are deterring them. Indeed the statistics passed a symbolic threshold on Wednesday, when the total number of migrants to have made the journey since 2018 passed 100,000.
Yvette Cooper, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on home affairs issues, said in a statement that “the Conservatives have slogans and gimmicks, but no real solutions and no grip” on the migrant situation.
Greg Ó Ceallaigh, a lawyer who specializes in immigration and human rights law, said that the root cause of the large numbers of asylum seekers in hotels was the slow pace at which the government has been processing asylum applications. That has led to a backlog of people who need to be housed while they await processing.
“It’s boring and they are not going to get headlines but what they need to do is make decisions on asylum claims,” he said. “It’s the incompetence that stands out — but I do also think that this is performative cruelty. The fact that they have a ‘small boats week’ really shows that this is more of a public-relations campaign than a policy solution to a real problem.”