Asylum seekers evacuated from UK barge over legionnaires’ disease fears

Asylum seekers were evacuated from the accommodation barge leased by the UK on Friday after traces of the bacteria that cause legionnaires’ disease were found in the controversial vessel’s water system.

The Home Office announced it had removed 39 people from the Bibby Stockholm, just days after the first asylum seekers had gone on board. The barge, which forms part of UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s flagship policy to deter migrants from coming to Britain via irregular routes, only became operational on Monday.

Plans to use the vessel to eventually house up to 500 men were already weeks behind schedule partly because of concerns about whether it complied with fire safety and health regulations.

“Environmental samples from the water system on the Bibby Stockholm have shown levels of legionella bacteria which require further investigation,” the Home Office said in a statement on Friday.

“As a precautionary measure, all 39 asylum seekers who arrived on the vessel this week are being disembarked while further assessments are undertaken,” it added.

The government said no one on the barge had shown symptoms of legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia, and there was no risk to the population of Portland in Dorset, where the barge is berthed.

This evacuation was the second blow to the government’s week-long campaign to champion its approach to try to deter migrants crossing the Channel. The number of people reaching the UK in small boats in the five years since records began hit 100,000 this week, according to Home Office data.

The milestone was reached after 755 migrants were detected crossing the Channel on Thursday, the highest daily total this year. Among them were 17 people who were plucked from the sea in a rescue operation.

Lee Anderson, the deputy chair of the ruling Conservative party who earlier in the week said migrants could “f*** off back to France” if they did not like the idea of living on the Bibby Stockholm, said he was “very angry with the numbers”.

Labour’s Stephen Kinnock, the shadow immigration minister, said the government’s migrant policy was a “shambles”. Earlier this week ministers were forced to deny they were reconsidering plans to send asylum seekers to Ascension Island, a remote British overseas territory in the south Atlantic, while an internal Tory row broke out over the UK’s membership of the European Court of Human Rights.

Sunak has made halting cross-Channel migration one of his five priorities and has introduced controversial legislation that bars anyone who arrives in the UK without prior permission from claiming asylum.

But the Home Office has struggled to get his policies off the ground in the face of legal challenges and ballooning costs associated with a record backlog of asylum claims.

The persistent high numbers of migrants still reaching the UK in dinghies has also cast doubt on whether the government’s tough approach is having any material impact on the decision of migrants to make the dangerous crossings.

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