STEPHEN GLOVER: Whether it’s Rwanda, Ascension Island or a barge in Dorset, Labour bleats about cruelty – but offers no credible migrant plan
At last! The Government is finally waking up to the possibility that its plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda may not work. It is considering sending them to a British overseas territory.
Ascension Island, which sits some 4,000 miles away in the middle of the South Atlantic, is a leading candidate. It is by all reports a pretty windswept place. But it has the advantage of being British, and therefore less prone to the kind of legal challenges that have dogged the Government’s Rwanda scheme.
Perhaps some imaginative person in the Home Office has come across an old copy of the Mail. Almost a year ago, I wrote in these pages a sentence which I hope readers will forgive me for repeating.
‘As the Rwandan scheme has seemingly failed, what is the objection to identifying a British-owned island, which need not be off our immediate coast, to which all asylum seekers would be sent and processed by British officials under British law?’
Only a month ago, I argued that the Government should come up with a ‘Plan B’ – an alternative to Rwanda – to address the problem of migrants crossing the Channel, which is now illegal. I suggested that a number of uninhabited islands off the British coast might be suitable for this purpose.
The Government is finally waking up to the possibility that its plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda may not work. It is considering sending them to a British overseas territory
Ascension Island, which sits some 4,000 miles away in the middle of the South Atlantic, is a leading candidate
Now I certainly don’t want to join that group of people who automatically criticise the Government whenever it comes up with an idea for reducing illegal immigration. I’m thinking of Labour politicians, hand-wringing bishops, human rights lawyers and activists, all of them given supporting fire by the BBC.
None of them ever comes up with specific or credible alternative plans. They simply assert that the Government is incompetent and cruel, and they go on saying it whatever new policies are proposed.
Yesterday, for example, the first asylum seekers arrived to be housed in the Bibby Stockholm barge, which is moored in Portland port, Dorset. The locals are unhappy, not wanting hundreds of young foreign men on their doorstep, while the activists apparently equate the barge with the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock tries to claim the moral high ground by saying that he is ‘personally deeply unhappy’ about the Bibby Stockholm, while admitting that a future Labour government would have ‘no choice’ but to continue housing asylum seekers on barges and ex-military bases.
So long as the barge is clean, hygienic and safe, which I trust it is, there can be no reasonable objection to housing migrants there. The Government can’t go on spending £6 million a day on providing hotel rooms for migrants who haven’t been invited here.
Yesterday the first asylum seekers arrived to be housed in the Bibby Stockholm barge, which is moored in Portland port, Dorset
Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock tries to claim the moral high ground by saying that he is ‘personally deeply unhappy’ about the Bibby Stockholm
The prospect of ending up on a barge with a weekly allowance of £9.10 (all meals are free), rather than being put up in a four-star hotel, may well discourage some migrants as they peer at the white cliffs of Dover from what is a safe sanctuary on the French coast.
Nonetheless – and here I’m going to put on the mantle of a constructive critic – it is surely clear that the Bibby Stockholm represents a very partial solution to a seemingly intractable problem.
It will only accommodate up to 500 migrants. Two further planned barges will presumably be of a similar size. Even if we factor in military bases, these substitutes for hotels won’t go very far.
After all, early last month, 686 migrants crossed the Channel in a single day. The all-time high is 1,295 migrants on August 22, 2022. In that month alone, 8,641 were recorded as making the journey, though there seem to be slightly fewer so far this August.
In other words, there are unlikely to be enough barges and former military bases to accommodate numbers on this scale. A lot of hot air is being expended on the Bibby Stockholm. A more far-reaching solution is needed.
Before I come to that, let me mention that the official figures for migrants crossing the Channel don’t include everyone. An estimated 21,000 people slipped undetected into Britain last year, in addition to the 45,756 recorded as coming in small boats, plus about 9,000 via ports and airports.
An estimated 21,000 people slipped undetected into Britain last year, in addition to the 45,756 recorded as coming in small boats, plus about 9,000 via ports and airport
READ MORE: What is The Bibby Stockholm and how much does the asylum seekers barge cost?
Today, the first asylum seekers arrived at the The Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset, following weeks of delays
Anyway, back to the solution. The reported plan to send migrants to Ascension Island shows that the Government is at long last being realistic about the limitations of its Rwanda scheme.
It still hopes that this autumn the Supreme Court will give the plan its green light, reversing a recent judgment by the Appeal Court that Rwanda isn’t a ‘safe country’. Junior Home Office minister Sarah Dines expressed such optimism in radio interviews yesterday morning.
Maybe ministers’ hopes are well-founded, though I don’t see how they can look into the minds of Supreme Court judges. But even if they’re right, and the Rwanda plan is finally allowed to go ahead, it’s hard to see how it can more than scratch the surface.
The Rwandan government may be able to deal with no more than a couple of hundred migrants in the first instance. It is also charging a whopping £105,000 for hosting each asylum seeker. There will also be £22,000 paid per individual for the flight and escorting, and £18,000 for legal and other costs. That’s a lot of money.
Conceivably, Rwanda may provide a small part of the solution, but I’d be astonished if it were more than that. Nor am I encouraged by reports that talks have taken place with five more African countries to see whether they might supply a similar service. One of them, Niger, is in the throes of a coup that could lead to war.
Why can’t we tackle the problem ourselves? In fact, three years ago Boris Johnson’s administration did consider Ascension Island as a possible processing centre for migrants. The idea was vetoed after a Foreign Office study pointed out that it has inadequate water and power supplies, and no hospital.
It’s also the case that because Ascension is a very long way away, it would be expensive to send migrants there for processing. However, it has an airfield, where large RAF planes can land.
Ascension Island isn’t ideal, and there may well be better options closer to home. There are dozens of uninhabited islands off the British coast, where facilities could be built. In 2006 the Army built Camp Bastion in the wilds of Afghanistan, a vast base accommodating 26,000 people.
Labour will, of course, oppose sending migrants to Ascension, as it did when the idea was first mooted. Nick Thomas-Symonds, then Shadow Home Secretary, said: ‘This ludicrous idea is inhumane, completely impractical and wildly expensive.’
But Labour will always criticise the Government, even as it adopts its policies, as it has with the Bibby Stockholm. Whether Plan B focuses on Ascension or somewhere else, Labour is bound to bleat.
We needn’t get fixated on Ascension. There may well be preferable islands. We must create an efficiently and humanely run processing centre – definitely not a holiday camp – whose existence will deter illegal immigration.
A place where our own officials can fairly and methodically process thousands of claims under British law. That won’t happen in Rwanda. This is a British problem, which we should have the strength and imagination to solve ourselves.
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