Edinburgh refugee ship: Home Office plans to house asylum seekers on Leith ship set to be blocked
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The Ukrainians who had been living aboard the MS Victoria in Leith docks after fleeing the war in their homeland have gradually been moving off the vessel and into other accommodation, with the contract for using the ship due to end on July 11. City council leader Cammy Day said he had been “extremely surprised” when the council was contacted by the Home Office about its intentions to commission the ship to house asylum seekers. He made clear his opposition to the idea, saying the MS Victoria had been a place of refuge for Ukrainian families and should not be turned into a “floating prison” for asylum seekers.
The Scottish Government also criticised the Home Office plans. And now Forth Ports, who own and run the docks, appear to have killed off the scheme, saying its piority is the creation of its massive new offshore renewables hub, which will serve as a construction base for new wind farm in the North Sea.
Forth Ports chief executive Charles Hammond said: “Forth Ports has had no contact from the UK or Scottish Government on this matter. We would not be able to accommodate this facility at the Port of Leith as we continue to create our bespoke offshore renewables hub. We believe that the MS Victoria, which is currently berthed in Leith as a refuge for Ukrainian people, is due to depart in July. Forth Ports has no plans to house an asylum seeker vessel at the Port of Leith.”
Earlier, Cllr Day had said the council was not consulted on the Home Office plans. And he said: “The potential consequences for the council in terms of the pressures on our services – and the city as a whole – are severe and, barring robust partnership discussions involving NHS, police and other colleagues, we will continue to oppose these plans in the strongest terms. Many of these people have risked their lives to make it to Europe and what they need is recognition and rights, not an unknown future without the support they so desperately need.”
And criticising the Home Office plans, Scottish Government Social Justice Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said the UK government’s approach on asylum seekers was “an absolutely different world” from the welcome extended in Leith to the Ukrainian refugees. In a radio interview, she said: "We were very clear when we used the MS Victoria ship for Ukraine that it was on a temporary basis and it was there in an emergency situation to deal with I hope a unique situation of many people coming and fleeing the war in Ukraine. It was temporary and it was to ensure people then moved on to new accommodation, which is exactly why the ship will be disembarked by the middle of July.
“Even though it was temporary there was an amazing community spirit that had been built up and services were provided to ensure our Ukrainian guests were treated with dignity. Compare that with the way people are going to be held on this ship with no right to work, really restricted access to public funds, waiting year after year for a decision from the Home Office, with no timescale as to when that decision will be made, and that is an absolutely different world to what we're doing with our Ukrainian guests.
“We're hearing from the Home Office that people may be forced, for example, to share rooms. People that are coming here seeking asylum and refuge, who have gone through unimaginable horror, are being treated more like this is a zoo rather than a community.” She said if asylum seekers were treated by the Home Office system in the same way as Ukrainian refugees, it would be “an entirely different situation”. She said: “We are hugely concerned that the UK government has a system that is more to do with headlines than being able to assist people.”
The British Red Cross also voiced concern about the Home Office plans. Alex Fraser, the charity’s UK director of refugee support, said: “As Ukrainian families plan to disembark MS Victoria by July 11, it is concerning to hear of plans to place others seeking safety in accommodation which is not fit for purpose. A docked ship with windowless cabins is not an appropriate place to house people who have been forced to flee their homes and experienced trauma. They require stability and support in order to maintain contact with their loved ones and feel safe. Instead, they’ll be placed in limbo, stuck in a dockyard where they won’t have important needs met.
“We find ourselves in this position as a direct result of the failure to tackle the asylum backlog, more than 172,000 people living in limbo. We need a more effective and compassionate asylum system, one that supports people to integrate into a community so they can find safety and live in dignity. Reducing the backlog will reduce the pressure on accommodation and the need for more contingency hotels, barracks and barges, which are no place for people who have experienced trauma to recover and access the support that they need.”
The Home Office has said it has a statutory obligation to provide accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute while we consider their claim and it is committed to making every effort to reduce hotel use.