It was a rough reception for the Bibby Stockholm, a hulking metal barge intended to house up to 500 asylum seekers, as it pulled into its new berth in Portland, on England’s picturesque southern coast, on Tuesday.
Protesters holding signs reading “No to the barge” and “No floating prison” gathered at the dock as television crews filmed them. While there were deeply divided political opinions on display — some denouncing the planned living conditions and advocating refugee rights, others protesting against the imminent arrival of migrants in their town — the demonstrators were united in wanting the barge gone.
The barge will be docked in the port for at least 18 months, according to the government, and will eventually house adult male asylum seekers who have entered Britain by crossing the English Channel on small boats. They are expected to begin arriving later this month.
The barge showed up in Portland at a time when the political rhetoric around asylum seekers in Britain has grown increasingly heated. Late on Monday night, lawmakers passed the Illegal Migration Bill, which will allow for people who arrive in Britain on small boats to be detained and sent to the central African nation of Rwanda or to another “safe” third country.
The government has described the law as essential to halting arrivals across the English Channel and via other illegal routes. But legal experts have warned that aspects of the new legislation could break international laws protecting refugees.
Most of those who arrive by small boat are fleeing war-torn home countries. Last year, small boat arrivals accounted for 45 percent of the overall asylum claims in Britain, and 60 percent of those people will eventually receive refugee status, according to an analysis from the Refugee Council, a charity that supports people seeking asylum.
Laura Kyrke-Smith, executive director of the aid group International Rescue Committee U.K., said in a statement on Tuesday that the passage of the Illegal Migration Bill was “damaging for Britain and devastating for people seeking safety from conflict and persecution.”
“The bill dismantles people’s right to seek asylum in the U.K., a right established in the wake of the Second World War, which has offered vital protection and hope in the decades since, and earned those who uphold it great respect,” she said.
The plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal in London last month, but Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the government would seek permission to take its case to the Supreme Court.
Even before the Bibby Stockholm’s arrival, there had already been a great deal of local and national opposition, with Portland residents rallying in Facebook groups.
Sharon Dowell, a resident of nearby Weymouth, said in a Facebook message that she worried that the residents of the barge would be left “hanging around with absolutely nothing to do in groups,” in an area that relies heavily on tourism. She said that many local people had received no answers to any of their “genuine concerns.”
“The point is the barge is a small cramped space, they cannot work due to their asylum claims,” Ms. Dowell said. “They are going to be bored and frustrated and will end up just loitering around.”
She also expressed frustration that locals had to wait around two weeks to see health care providers, and that many in the area were “living hand to mouth,” while free transportation and accessible health care were being put in place for the asylum seekers.
Dorset Council, the local authority for Portland, said it had no input in decision to park the barge there, which had been made by the owners of Portland Port and the government, and it has been clear that it opposes the location.
Portland Town Council has also been vocal in its opposition to the arrival of the vessel, with Jim Draper, the council’s chair, noting in a statement this spring that it would be “inappropriate to house refugees, some of the most vulnerable people in the world, on board a ship in Portland Port.”
Mr. Draper, a member of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, elaborated in an email on Tuesday that he feared that the far right would instigate “violent confrontation with the refugees.” He added that he felt the barge was being used by the government as a political tool to keep immigration on the agenda “so people forget about Johnson’s lies and the ghastly mess this government has made out of the economy,” referring to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Both local authorities say that the port, on a tiny rugged island reached by a causeway from Dorset’s picturesque Jurassic Coast, and the surrounding area lack the infrastructure for 500 additional people. The Home Office said in a statement that it had “worked closely with local councils and stakeholders to minimize the impact of the site and vessel on local services and the community.”
In a fact sheet, the government said that the facility was “designed to be as self-sufficient as possible in order to minimize” the impact on local communities and services.
The government has also said it would provide some 3,500 pounds, or almost $4,600, per occupied bed in the vessel to Dorset Council, as well as providing additional funding to local health and police services this year.
This would amount to around £1.75 million, or around $2.29 million, if the anticipated 500 people are moved on board. Dorset Council said that it also received a one-off payment of £377,000, to “help provide asylum seekers with activities, volunteering opportunities and English-speaking lessons.”
The British government says it has plans for two more barges, though it is unclear where they will be docked.
This is not the first time that Britain has used a ship to accommodate people receiving housing from the government. The Scottish government contracted two cruise ships to temporarily house Ukrainian refugees beginning last year. But this week, the final people were moved off those vessels and into longer-term accommodation as the contracts ended.
The Bibby Stockholm, the other potential vessels and former military sites are part of a larger plan to move asylum seekers out of hotels, which the Home Office said currently held about 51,000 asylum seekers at a daily cost of around £6 million.
The new sites, it said, would be cheaper. Last week, the first 46 asylum seekers were moved to a former military facility in Wethersfield, about 50 miles northeast of London, with more people expected to arrive there in the coming weeks. The Home Office said it aimed to house 1,700 people there by this autumn.