Why Plan To House Asylum Seekers On Ferries Is Home Office's Dumbest Idea Yet

It is inhumane, will cost more and wreck the environment. Good one. How about sending them to the moon next?

The UK has seen a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving into the UK via small boat crossings – with at least 7,000 in 2020.

With the sudden drop in road freight due to Covid-19 making it harder for people to travel in lorries, the UK’s refugee resettlement scheme paused indefinitely due to the pandemic, and the growing presence of people smugglers in northern France, many of those desperate to travel to the UK have been left with no other choice but to make the dangerous journey by boat.

Urged on by a number of anti-refugee campaigners, including Nigel Farage and far-right activists who have filmed themselves turning up to hotels housing asylum seekers, the UK government has vowed to take action – including bringing the military into the Channel.

In recent days, several papers have reported that Home Office officials are considering adopting the “offshore” model used by the Australian government – housing them on ferries.

That’s in addition to various other increasingly outlandish proposals to process applications on Ascension Island or Papua New Guinea.

But to change the current system – already fraught with problems and the subject of allegations of abuse – could have huge human, financial and environmental implications.

The human cost

It’s important to recognise that asylum seekers, living under what has often been portrayed as a “soft” British system, are already suffering.

In the aftermath of the Glasgow hotel attack in July, in which Sudanese asylum seeker Badreddin Abedlla Adam stabbed six people before being shot dead by police, concerns about the conditions in temporary accommodation for asylum seekers came to the fore.

Positive Action In Housing (PAIH) referred to the situation in Glasgow, where around 5,000 asylum seekers are currently housed, as a “humanitarian crisis”, with the Mears Group – subcontracted by the government – accused of “warehousing for profit”.

In September Glasgow MPs called for an inquiry into the deaths of three asylum seekers in the city, including that of Mercy Baguma, originally from Uganda, who was found dead close to her malnourished baby son.

The UK is the only western European country without a statutory detention limit, which means that people can be placed in detention centres – often with the immediate threat of deportation – for any length of time.

People detained inside removal centres have widely described prison-like conditions, and, according to the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) in 2018, 20% of people were held for more than two months.

To understand the impact an offshore system could have on asylum seekers – many of whom have already experienced immense trauma both in their home country and during their journey to the UK – we need to look at Australia.

Despite being deemed unlawful under international law, and the subject of years of human rights campaigning, Australia has been sending asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Nauru and Papua New Guinea since 2001.

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, 13 people have died – both through neglect and suicide – at offshore centres, and the mental health of those held in detention is worse than that of people in refugee camps.

More than 4,000 people – including children – have been sent to offshore facilities since the scheme resumed in 2012.

Organisations working to support asylum seekers in Nauru have previously reported self-harm or suicide attempts amongst children as young as eight detained on the island. Some 30 children in 2018 were thought to have traumatic withdrawal syndrome – a progressive and potentially life-threatening condition causing sufferers to gradually withdraw to the extent that they refuse food and drink and eventually become unresponsive.

In 2015 thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the Australian government’s use of the centres, after it emerged that a 23-year-old Somali woman held in offshore detention had been allegedly raped and transported to the mainland to have an abortion. Australia’s Refugee Council has described evidence of sexual abuse in offshore centres as “overwhelming”, and a damning report by the country’s lawmakers described conditions on Nauru as “not adequate, appropriate or safe”.

Andy Hewett, head of advocacy at the UK’s Refugee Council, said the organisation is “very alarmed” that the Home Office could pursue an offshore a system of offshore detention.

He added: “The Australian experiment has shown that this approach leads to catastrophic outcomes, including high levels of self-harm and mental illness.

“People seeking asylum have a right to claim asylum in the UK, and living in our communities gives them the best opportunity to adapt to life in the UK.

“Pursuing offshore detention would seriously damage the UK’s proud history of protecting refugees.”

The financial cost

Detention centres already come at a huge cost to the taxpayer – with the annual cost of detention for the year ending March 2019 totalling £89m, a daily cost of around £95 for each detainee.

In January 2019, the Home Office entered into seven 10-year contracts with private companies – Clearsprings, Ready Homes, Serco and Mears – to provide “accommodation, transportation and support services to eligible asylum applicants”.

According to the department’s most recent published accounts, all of these contracts have been operational since September 2019, and are worth £4.2bn.

A look at the Home Office’s total expenditure on asylum costs in 2019-2020 shows some £470m was spent over the course of the year.

While these figures may seem high, the expenditure is dwarfed by that of Australia. According to figures collated by the Refugee Council of Australia, processing asylum seekers offshore in Nauru and Papua New Guinea came at an annual cost of more than $1bn (£560m) in 2018-2019.

With the UK’s plans to process asylum seekers on offshore ferries currently little more than reported discussions between Home Office ministers, there’s no indication of how much such a strategy could cost taxpayers.

According to The Times, a disused 40-year-old ferry could be bought from Italy for £6m, housing 1,400 people in 141 cabins, while a disused cruise ship, currently moored in Barbados, could cost £116m, accommodating 2,417 people in 1,000 cabins. These costs do not include the huge task of converting such a ship.

While asylum seekers are usually transported by coach to temporary accommodation at present, offshore holding centres would present a new – not to mention costly – logistical problem, and the Home Office would presumably be forced to recruit a significant number of new staff to run its operations.

There’s little information available online regarding how much officers working in detention centres earn, but careers organisation Prospects states that Border Force assistant officers are paid £20,475 to £21,358 a year, increasing to between £23,330 and £26,831 a year with the role of officer. In order to recruit staff who are, presumably, willing to live on board what amounts to a floating detention centre, it is likely those salaries would have to be increased significantly.

Factoring in the other complications of opening a facility like a holding ship, such as food and supplies having to be delivered by boat or air rather than by road, it is likely to cost the government far more to process asylum seekers offshore than the current system does.

The cost to the taxpayer is a favoured argument of those against permitting asylum seekers to come to the UK, but an offshore arrangement is unlikely to solve that problem – and in all probability would magnify it.

The environmental cost

While not the first complication that comes to mind, there is also the issue of ferries being a huge polluter.

According to Transport & Environment, Europe’s largest clean transport campaigning group, cruise ships – which could potentially accommodate thousands of asylum seekers – have a huge impact on the climate, air quality and natural habitats.

The vast majority of cruise ships burn heavy fuel oil (HFO), which is the dirtiest fossil fuel available, and most ships are fitted with diesel particulate filters that are standard for vehicles such as truck. HFO contains 35,000ppm sulphur, which is 3,500 times more polluting than road diesel.

It isn’t clear where the Home Office proposed the ships be moored, but cruise ships passing close to coastal communities contribute significantly to worsened air quality in those areas.

On a smaller scale, it was found that even London ferries produced the same emissions as those generated by hundreds of buses and trucks, The Independent reported in 2018.

Read more: Is It Actually Possible To Ban All New Petrol And Diesel Cars By 2035?

The government is set to host the UN’s annual Climate Change Conference, referred to as COP26, in November 2021, and Boris Johnson has already set about urging other countries to go carbon neutral by 2050 – positioning the UK as a green example to lead other nations by.

Ethical and financial implications aside, holding potentially thousands of asylum seekers on board disused ships – which are likely to be older vessels and therefore probably not fitted with green technology – could generate a much larger carbon footprint than continuing with the current system.

Bringing journeys back and forth from the ships, for asylum seekers, staff, and supplied, into the equation, the pursuit of an offshore system would likely directly contradict the government’s climate ambitions.


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