The Home Office is planning to use 10 redundant cruise ships, ferries and barges to house asylum seekers in ports around the country, with Merseyside expected to be next in line as ministers struggle to get to grips with the asylum backlog.
Officials have been told to look at “all options” to find housing for people caught up in processing delays, including former military camps and prisons, with the total backlog more than 1,500 higher than in December when Rishi Sunak pledged to clear it within a year.
Home Office insiders have conceded that they may have to find more hotels to house people – despite pressure from Conservative backbench MPs – after failing to locate 10,000 spaces in military camps, disused prisons and large vessels as hoped.
The Guardian has been told that one leading maritime company is even conducting a feasibility study into housing migrants on redundant oil rigs, an idea that ministers rejected in 2020 as a “no-go” because of enormous logistical and safety difficulties and the Home Office is unlikely to adopt.
The revelation that the government wants as many as 10 vessels – at a cost of millions of pounds to the taxpayer – comes after ministers confirmed plans to house about 400 people in a giant barge in Dorset, as they try to allay concerns from Tory backbenchers over the use of hotels in their constituencies.
The barge, Bibby Stockholm, will be berthed in Portland port from early June. The first group of migrants, expected to be single men nearing the end of their asylum-processing claims, are expected to board later that month, with more people arriving over the summer.
Whitehall sources said that Suella Braverman, the home secretary, was also “close to confirming” a deal for an 1,800-capacity former cruise ship to house migrants, that would be berthed in the Mersey, although no contract has yet been signed.
Peel Ports, which owns and operates port infrastructure in the Birkenhead area, has said it would only go ahead with the plans if there was full engagement with the local council. Local politicians, however, have condemned the proposal, pointing to a lack of infrastructure and describing the plans as a “floating prison”.
Ministers are reported to be plotting to force Sunak’s illegal migration bill into law if it is blocked or watered down by the House of Lords this summer, with plans to use the Parliament Act to overrule peers to force the legislation on to the statute book.
Nevertheless, the rarely used device is unlikely to succeed before the next general election as the government must wait 12 months after a law is rejected by the Lords. Instead, ministers – who are keen to sound tough on small boat crossings before this week’s local elections – are expected to blame peers for their failure to deliver.
The search for suitable vessels to house asylum seekers, and the logistics of where to berth them, are believed to have hindered the Home Office’s attempts to clear the asylum backlog with hundreds of migrants still arriving across the Channel every week. Home Office sources said they did not have a target for the number of vessels they planned to use.
Industry insiders said there was a shortage of barges available on the market, with many in use for offshore construction projects and some other governments also said to be interested in acquiring them to house migrants.
Ministers had initially planned to use disused cruise ships and ferries as they were able to accommodate more people. The Guardian has reported that possible vessels included a former cruise ship from Indonesia. Few ports in the UK are big enough to accommodate them, however.
The Guardian has been told that officials have been asked to find another 10,000 places not in hotels for the end of this year. But so far, just 5,400 places are expected to be ready to receive migrants by the end of this year, sources said.
They include accommodation at the former military bases at Wethersfield and Scampton which would hold 3,700 people; and reopening of immigration detention centres Haslar, in Hampshire, and Campsfield, near Oxford, which would hold 1,000.
A further 1,200 people could be accommodated at Northeye, a former prison in East Sussex, and at barracks in Catterick, in Sunak’s North Yorkshire constituency; while 400 people would be placed on the barge in Portland, Dorset.
One government source said the use of giant barges or refurbished ferries and cruise ships to house refugees could have a “deterrent effect” on people arriving in small boats, although critics suggest it would amount to arbitrary detention.
The home secretary has come under increased pressure from Conservative backbenchers to find an alternative solution to housing migrants in hotels, with about 400 currently used to house about 51,000 asylum seekers, at a reported daily cost of £6.2m.
Officials warned last year that plans to detain people on large vessels offshore could end up being more expensive than housing them in hotels, with Home Office documents suggesting it could cost £7m a day.
The move comes as part of a wider attempt to disincentivise asylum seekers with a new law that would bar anyone arriving unofficially from ever settling in the UK, even if they have been trafficked. They would instead be deported to Rwanda or other countries.
Home Office figures, released last week before the third reading of the illegal migration bill in the House of Commons, show that the total asylum backlog has grown from 136,230 in December, to 138,052 in March, though this did fall by 730 last month.
While the “legacy” backlog, which the government has promised to clear by December 2023, has fallen by about 10,000 in the first three months of the year, to 80,148, at current rates the prime minister would not meet his target until March 2025.
The “flow” backlog – new claims made since June 2022 – has soared to more than 57,000 people, including a rise of about 12,000 arrivals since December. Clearing the backlog has been hampered by a failure to recruit and retain asylum caseworkers. Despite promises to double the number to 2,400, the total has gone backwards.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The pressure on the asylum system has continued to grow and requires us to look at a range of accommodation options which offer better value for money for taxpayers than hotels. This includes the potential use of vessels to provide accommodation.”