UK Plan for Cruise Ship Migrant Housing Falters for Lack of a Port

Victoria I
Cruise ships and ferries have been used to house migrants before, including the Victoria I, above. The vessels involved in the latest plan were not identified (Marko Stampehl photo courtesy of Tallink)

Published Jul 18, 2023 4:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UK government's plans to house asylum seekers aboard two cruise ships have fallen through because local port authorities refuse to allow them to dock, according to UK media.

In March, the government of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced its intention to charter an accommodations barge for migrant housing, part of a high-profile plan to downgrade accommodation quality for illegal immigrants. In June, the plan expanded to include two cruise ships, which would be stationed at major ports and would provide temporary housing for about 1,000 immigrants. 

The UK is spending about $7.5 million per day on hotel rooms for 50,000 migrants awaiting asylum hearings, and the steep expenditure on non-citizens has drawn criticism. The government has proposed using vessels as a way to bring down cost and distribute the burden of migration across more communities. The use of vessels for migrant housing has been done before in the UK, and has been used widely in the EU.  

The first part of the Sunak administration's plan is well under way. The accommodations barge Bibby Stockholm arrived Tuesday at the port of Portland, where it will take on 500 asylum seekers - despite protests from human rights organizations and local residents. The barge will take on its complement of single adult male passengers over the span of the next few months, and the government has emphasized its efforts to minimize impact on the local community. 

"We think it is better to open specific sites designed to house immigrants that come in," a spokesman for the prime minister said Tuesday.  "That's what we are seeking to do with the Bibby Stockholm and that's what we're seeking to do in other parts of the country."

The cruise ship-based housing plan has been less successful. According to Sky News, the two chartered vessels have both been returned to their owners because the UK government was unable to find a port willing to host them. A spokesman for the prime minister did not contest the apparent cancelation, and instead emphasized continued efforts to find extra accommodations sites of all kinds. 

In the long term, the Sunak administration is planning to deter cross-Channel migration by making asylum harder to obtain. On Tuesday, a government-backed bill to outlaw asylum claims from maritime migrants passed the House of Lords, clearing the way for the authorities to deport new arrivals more quickly.