Skip to main content

A Desert Island Disc on repeat

Ascension Island
By Perry Miller
08 August 2023
Public Affairs
asylum seekers

Yesterday’s acknowledgement by a Home Office Minister that a ‘Plan B’ alternative to the Rwanda relocation plan is in the offing, had journalists scrambling for an atlas as they sought to pinpoint Ascension Island. Part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, this volcanic island in the South Atlantic for a brief moment yesterday became the latest ‘solution’ to the government’s burgeoning migrant crisis. A one-way ticket to Ascension, with return to the UK contingent on a successful asylum claim, was to be the prospect for migrants entering the UK via ‘illegal’ routes.

Faced with an ongoing legal challenge to its plans to forcibly relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda, and growing controversy over the prospect of housing up to 500 migrants on a barge off the south coast, the government needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Or rather, to throw a dead cat on the table.

But this was always going to be a midsummer story, and so it proved to be. In a matter of hours, the very obvious lack of infrastructure on the island – or indeed people – coupled with the logistics of actually getting there, raised eyebrows. It then turned out that officials had already deemed the plan a ‘non-starter’ due to the huge cost of building and staffing migrant facilities. Sir Jacob Rees Mogg revealed that the cost had been estimated at £1 million per person sent there and the MoD, which has an air base on the island, reportedly said that it wanted nothing to do with the idea. So that’s that.

Not that the plan is without precedent. It was Lord Liverpool, Conservative Prime Minister in the 1820s, who said of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile to the neighbouring island of St Helena: ‘[It] is the ideal place to lock away such a character. In such a place, so far away, no scheming of any kind will be possible and, far from Europe, he will be quickly forgotten.’

So, if migrants are not to be cast away on their own desert island, with only the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible to comfort them (confession: I love Desert Island Discs), what is the alternative? Cue the Bibby Stockholm, a 500-bed barge now moored off the Dorset coast. The idea is to move asylum seekers out of hotels and onto the barge, saving money in the process. And to be fair, that is exactly what the barge has been used for previously, both in Germany and the Netherlands, although not without controversy.

This is going to be a long job: just 15 people boarded yesterday as others refused, some citing a severe fear of water. The Fire Brigades Union has raised concerns about fire safety on the vessel which was previously kitted out for 220 occupants; and a vocal opposition group in Portland continues to picket at the dockside.

And there would need to be another 99 such barges moored around the UK to accommodate the 50,000 asylum seekers housed in hotels.

That is not to say that the policy does not resonate with the public: a You Gov poll in April 2023 revealed that 50% consider barges as ‘acceptable’ housing for asylum seekers with 33% opposed; support for the policy among Conservatives rises to 73%.  Which is good news for the government as the public doesn’t have much faith in its Rwanda policy: polling earlier this year found that 51% think it won’t work to deter boat crossings.

And what of Labour in all this? The admission by Stephen Kinnock that an incoming Labour government would need to keep migrants on barges until it found an alternative long-term asylum accommodation solution, lead to howls of outrage from the Left. 

With scant news to cover in August and a host of African countries apparently vying for a deal with the Home Office, this is a story that keeps on giving.