The UK Government offered a £5.9m pay-off to Edinburgh council in an ultimately futile attempt to house thousands of asylum seekers on a ship berthed at Leith Docks.
Documents obtained by The Ferret show the Home Office sought to use the cruise ship MV Victoria 1 to house up to 1700 asylum seekers at the port, whilst their immigration status was being assessed.
The boat had been used by the Scottish Government as temporary accommodation for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion of their home country since July 2022, with the last resident disembarking from the ship in July 2023.
The Home Office is under pressure to bring tackle a backlog of asylum seeker applications.
The department reported recently that there were 106,543 people waiting six months or more for a decision on the their application for asylum. The largest number on record.
A series of letters between the Home Office and Scottish officials shows the UK Government began efforts to take over the use of the vessel in the spring, so that it could be used to provide accommodation for thousands of single adult male asylum seekers instead.
In a June 1 letter, Scottish Government and City of Edinburgh Council officials followed up on previous meetings to explain their concerns about the MS Victoria 1 being used to house asylum seekers, telling Robert Jenrick, the UK Government immigration minister: “Edinburgh is not in a position to proceed at this point in time due to commitments made to successfully support thousands of other refugees and people displaced from Ukraine.”
The officials went on to argue that asylum seekers are not the same as Ukrainian refugees.
“Unlike displaced people from Ukraine, people seeking asylum have very limited rights, agency and support options…whereas the MS Victoria has accommodated mostly women and children from Ukraine…you are proposing to accommodate a large number of single men from various backgrounds and nationalities.
“We highlighted the risks this mix presents to people’s mental health and wellbeing; its impacts on devolved services; and concerns about community cohesion and integration.”
The Home Office responded with the offer of a ”substantial funding package” in a June 21 letter, in an effort to persuade local officials to support the plan.
The offer was said to be comparable to that offered to authorities in Dorset where the UK Government was also making plans to house 500 more asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge.
The deal included a one off payment of £3500 per “bed space” to the City of Edinburgh Council. With a capacity of 1700 people, if the MV Victoria 1 were filled, it would make the proposal worth nearly £6m.
On top of the “bed space” payments the Home Office also pledged “un-ringfenced” funding for Police Scotland and further cash for NHS Lothian to cover security and health care costs.
The letter also confirms that Robert Jenrick, Home Office immigration minister had lobbied the Scottish first minister directly over the matter, but it wasn’t enough to persuade the City of Edinburgh Council or the Scottish Government to support the proposals.
The next day, a City of Edinburgh Council meeting on June 22 voted to condemn the UK Government for proposing to use “unsuitable floating accommodation” and opposed “any potential moves by the UK Government to dock boats to house refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Edinburgh,” unless it agreed to significant policy changes.
The key change Scottish politicians sought was an end to the hostile environment policy that leaves asylum seekers with “no recourse to public funds” if their claim is refused.
This means those refused asylum cannot work and are not eligible for any social security benefits, leaving local authorities and voluntary agencies left to cover all the costs of preventing people falling into homelessness and destitution.
There was a risk of “the city’s homeless system becoming overloaded,” they said.
Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action in Housing, a charity which has supported both asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees throughout Scotland, said that “in principle people should not be housed on ships,” when asylum seekers are “basically being detained indefinitely”.
There are currently around 51,000 asylum seekers in temporary accommodation around the UK.
The Home Office approach to asylum seeker applications goes beyond the so-called “hostile-environment” policy introduced by Theresa May, Quershi argued.
“The problem is not just the hostile environment, it’s blatant racial segregation. People are treated very differently depending on where they come from. Some people can even be lost in the asylum system because the Home Office is not keeping proper records, but people must always be housed somewhere safe and dignified.”
Without more safe and accessible routes available to asylum seekers it amounted to “an unmanaged asylum system and this is what happens.”
In response, a Home Office spokesperson said that asylum seekers housed on ships would be free to come and go, and to compare the proposed arrangements to detention on a prison ship was wrong.
They confirmed the same £3500 per ‘bed-space’ offer has been made to other local authorities who have been asked to host ships providing temporary accommodation for asylum seekers.
The spokesperson said: “The Home Office sought to use the MS Victoria 1 to accommodate asylum seekers following its successful use by the Scottish Government to house Ukrainian refugee recognising that the vessel was immediately available and could offer better value for the British taxpayer than expensive hotels.”
On June 23, the BBC reported that Forth Ports, the private firm that operates Leith Docks “could not accommodate” the ship, as a longer stay for the ship would have conflicted with plans to develop a renewable energy hub at the site.
The cruise ship left Leith docks on July 11 2023 with Forth Ports who operate the docks insisting it had had no contact with either the Scottish Government or the UK Government over the proposals.
Image credit: Bernt Rostad | CC | https://flic.kr/p/fe6zpG