English town united in anger over asylum seeker barge
August 1, 2023 10:50 PM
If there's one thing that unites the people of Portland, south-west England, it is opposition to the UK government's plan to house 500 asylum seekers on a large barge in its harbour.
From a vantage point at the top of this small town of 13,000 inhabitants, the 93-metre- (305-foot-)long Bibby Stockholm can be seen below.
With its 222 cabins, it is supposed to house up to 500 asylum seekers over the next few months.
The first people were due to arrive on Tuesday but a last-minute hitch scuppered that plan.
Sending asylum seekers to docked barges is one of the plan's highly symbolic ideas, aimed at saving money on housing asylum seekers while acting as a deterrent.
In Portland, local residents told AFP they were all opposed to the idea.
But there is a palpable hostility between those who cite the risks to the safety of local residents and others who denounce a "floating prison".
- Divisive -
When Heather, a 33-year-old resident involved in an anti-racism group, showed journalists packs her organisation had prepared for asylum seekers, she was insulted by a motorist while another woman held up a "Stop the Invasion" sign.
"It's always like that now", said Heather, who decided to join the local branch of Stand Up To Racism because "when the barge was announced, I was really shocked by all the hate going around.
"There were people saying 'they're going to commit crimes, they're going to rape your children, your children won’t be safe', I was really upset," she added.
"Refugees have become such a divisive topic on a local and national scale," said 53-year-old Portland resident Richard Hatfield, who is also opposed to what he describes as a "floating prison".
The government is using refugees "to divide us", he claimed.
The Conservative government, struggling in the polls a year before the general election, has hardened its rhetoric and promised to end illegal crossings of the English Channel, with little success so far.
A new law that came into force in July, denounced by the UN, now prohibits migrants who have made the perilous crossing from applying for asylum in the UK.
More than 45,000 made the journey last year, and almost 15,000 have so far in 2023.
London also wants to reduce the cost of hotel accommodation for asylum seekers, which amounts to £2.3 billion euros ($2.9 billion, 2.6 billion euros) per year.
It instead wants to use facilities such as disused military bases, quayside barges and even tents.
But Portland is the only port in the country to have so far agreed to moor such a barge, with similar projects abandoned due to difficulty finding places for them to dock.
"There was no consultation, no consideration and no consent," Alex Bailey, a local resident in his thirties, told AFP, criticising a "secret deal" between the port and the government.
- Fire risk -
Firmly opposed to the project, he and others have set up a Facebook group called "No to the barge", where members share their anger at migrants and the government.
The local authorities confirmed late on Monday evening that the project had finally been postponed due to concerns raised by fire safety officers.
The government has yet to provide a new timetable for its opening.
The Bibby Stockholm is another example of the government's difficulties in delivering its plans to house asylum seekers away from hotels.
In the north of England, a project to house 2,000 asylum seekers in a disused military base was postponed last week due to a lack of qualified staff to manage the water, gas and electricity on site.
A similar project in the village of Linton-on-Ouse, north England, also ended in failure last year after a massive backlash from local residents.
Another totemic and controversial project -- sending illegal migrants, wherever they come from, to Rwanda -- is currently stuck in the courts.