Thousands of migrants travel to Britain every year on small boats, risking their lives to cross the English Channel and hoping to claim asylum when they reach dry land.
On Monday, the British government moved a group of them onto a barge docked at the coast, a controversial step it argues will save money but that critics say is the latest example of a steady hardening of migration policy under the governing Conservative Party.
Fifteen asylum seekers between the ages of 18 and 65 were transferred onto the 222-room Bibby Stockholm on Monday, with more set to arrive in the coming days. The government hopes that up to 500 people will eventually stay there.
Plans to make the barge operational were delayed several weeks by fire safety concerns. On Monday Downing Street said that checks were complete and the 47-year-old vessel was safe, though campaigners and some other groups disagreed. The Fire Brigades Union, which represents rank and file firefighters, said that barges housing asylum seekers were “a potential deathtrap,” describing the policy as “cruel and reckless.”
The arrival of the Bibby Stockholm has provoked opposition both from rights campaigners, who see its deployment for asylum seekers as inhumane, and from some local residents in the port of Portland, in Dorset, where the barge has been moored, who fear its arrival will divert local services.
But ahead of a general election that must take place by January 2025, the government appears to have calculated that a tough line on migration will be popular with voters. Earlier this year Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said that one of his five main priorities was to “stop the boats,” and the transfer of the first group of asylum seekers to the Bibby Stockholm is one of several announcements this week intended to underscore that theme.
The government says that the new policy will reduce the cost of accommodating asylum seekers in hotels — estimated at 6 million pounds, or about $7.7 million, a day — while their claims are considered.
The continued arrival of asylum seekers on the English coast is an acute embarrassment to the government and to supporters of Brexit, who promised that leaving the European Union would allow Britain to “take back control” of its frontiers.
Now the most visible symbol of the government’s tough migration policy, the Bibby Stockholm is deliberately austere, although it has a TV room, a multi-faith prayer room and a small gym, and asylum seekers will be free to board and leave the vessel at will. Officials say that it is safe and that it was previously used to accommodate asylum seekers in Germany and the Netherlands.
Steve Smith, the chief executive officer of Care4Calais, a refugee charity, said that none of the asylum seekers his organization is supporting had gone to the Bibby Stockholm on Monday and that legal representatives had intervened to have their transfers canceled. “To house any human being in a ‘quasi floating prison’ like the Bibby Stockholm is inhumane,” he said in a statement.
On Monday, Sarah Dines, a Home Office minister, described the barge as “basic but proper” and said that it would send “a forceful message that there will be proper accommodation but not luxurious.”
Yet with a backlog of asylum cases numbering 74,410 on May 28, the Bibby Stockholm will make little impact on the overall numbers. Other alternatives to hotels are under consideration, the government says, including two more barges and three military bases.
It has been coy, however, about the cost of keeping each person on the Bibby Stockholm, making it impossible to calculate whether or not the policy will save money for taxpayers.
Around three-quarters of initial asylum applications in Britain are successful, according to the Refugee Council, a charity, but last year the government announced plans to fly some of those arriving by boat to Rwanda, where they would have to stay even if they secured refugee status.
Ministers hoped that this approach would deter asylum seekers from making the dangerous crossing over the English Channel and nullify the business model of smuggling gangs that organize and profit from these journeys. But the Rwanda policy was halted in June by a legal action, which the government is now appealing to the Supreme Court.
Over the weekend, British news media reported that the government was exploring other locations to send asylum seekers if the courts continued to block the Rwanda plan, including Ascension Island, a British Overseas Territory, about 4,000 miles away in the South Atlantic Ocean.
The idea of using Ascension Island, which has a population of about 800, was first considered three years ago but was rejected as impractical, and on Monday British government officials played down the prospect of resurrecting the plan.
Critics argue that the Conservatives are using asylum seekers to stoke culture wars and create a political dividing line with the opposition Labour Party, which enjoys a strong lead in polls. Last month it emerged that the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, had ordered staff members at a center for unaccompanied child migrants to paint over a mural of cartoon characters. He later told the BBC that the mural was not “age appropriate to that location.”
The government on Monday also announced that it was significantly increasing fines that could be imposed on employers or landlords who knowingly cooperate with illegal immigrants.
“Unscrupulous landlords and employers who allow illegal working and renting enable the business model of the evil people smugglers to continue,” Mr. Jenrick said in a statement. “There is no excuse for not conducting the appropriate checks and those in breach will now face significantly tougher penalties.”
But Yvette Cooper, who speaks for the Labour Party on home affairs issues, said that penalties issued to firms employing workers illegally had fallen under the Conservative government by two-thirds since 2016. She added that since Mr. Sunak announced plans to cut hotel accommodation for asylum seekers in December last year, the number of rooms being used had increased by 25 percent. Those points underscore the difficulty that the government faces in showing voters that its range of tough policies is having any significant practical impact.
Small boat arrivals have declined slightly this year, although more than 15,000 people have still made the perilous crossing so far. It was unclear whether the decrease of around 15 percent from the previous year reflected a partial success of government policy or simply the impact of poor weather around the coasts of Britain in July, deterring people smugglers from attempting the trip.