Just four days after asylum seekers were sent by Britain’s government to a barge moored off the coast, the vessel was being evacuated on Friday after Legionella bacteria were found in its water supply.
The development is a setback for the Conservative government, which has pursued an increasingly hard-line policy on migration, including seeking more basic accommodation for those who arrive in Britain from France on small boats seeking refugee status.
The government says the measure is designed to cut the cost of housing 51,000 asylum seekers in hotels, which it estimates at 6 million pounds — about $7.6 million — a day. Critics say the use of the barge is a populist move designed to appeal to right-wing voters ahead of a likely election next year.
The barge, called the Bibby Stockholm, is moored at Portland Port in Dorset, on England’s southern coast, and accepted its first 15 residents on Monday, with more joining subsequently.
In a statement on Friday the Home Office, the government department responsible for migration, said that “samples from the water system on the Bibby Stockholm have shown levels of Legionella bacteria which require further investigation.”
All those who arrived on the barge this week — a total it put at 39 asylum seekers — were being disembarked as “a precautionary measure,” it said, “while further assessments are undertaken.”
The Home Office said that no individuals on board had presented with symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease — the sometimes fatal respiratory condition that can be caused by Legionella bacteria — and that asylum seekers were being provided with appropriate advice and support
But Care4Calais, a charity that supports refugees, said that as of Friday afternoon three men remained on the Bibby Stockholm. “No one has told them anything about the Legionella outbreak and they are frantically trying to find staff on board. It’s been left to our caseworkers to tell them to avoid the water,” the charity said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
The Home Office said that contaminated samples came from water found on the vessel’s internal systems and carried no direct risk for the wider community of Portland.
The discovery will raise further concerns about the public health risks of housing large numbers of asylum seekers on a barge. The British media reported on Thursday that one person suffering from latent tuberculosis had been told they were going to be moved onto the Bibby Stockholm.
The embarrassment of having to evacuate the vessel just days after it became operational is an unwelcome development for the government, which has trumpeted its hard-line approach as a way to deter the flow of people crossing from France on small, often unseaworthy, boats.
Its flagship migration policy — flying some asylum seekers to Rwanda before their cases are assessed — is currently blocked by a legal judgment that the government is appealing.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has declared stopping small-boat arrivals to be one of his top priorities, and the government had identified this week as “small boats week.”
Crossings have continued, however, with little sign that the new measures are deterring them. Indeed the statistics passed a symbolic threshold on Wednesday, when the total number of migrants to have made the journey since 2018 passed 100,000.