Christian voices have been sharing their thoughts as the first group of asylum seekers boarded the controversial Bibby Stockholm barge this week.
The first group of 15 people boarded the vessel moored off the coast of Dorset on Monday, following weeks of delays to the scheme after the Fire Brigades Union raised safety concerns. A further 20 migrants and asylum seekers initially refused to board.
The Home Office warned those who did not move on to the accommodation barge by the end of Tuesday could have their housing assistance withdrawn. A “significant” number of asylum seekers who had initially objected have since changed their minds according to comment from Immigration minister Robert Jenrick on Wednesday.
The 222-room barge in Portland Port is expected to hold 500 single males, with numbers expected to increase gradually over time. It also includes a TV room, catering, a gym and multi-faith prayer room.
The government has insisted the accommodation is a good alternative to the £6m-a-day cost of placing asylum seekers in hotels but the scheme has been met with mixed reviews. Christian Charity Seeking Sanctuary is critical, saying the floating hotel is "entirely" unsuitable.
Director of Seeking Sanctuary, Ben Bano tells Premier Christian News the solution is "inhumane": “It's very claustrophobic. And I think we already know that it could well be a fire risk. So it is entirely the wrong place to put people who are traumatised and who really, at the moment, are very, very worried about their future."
Migrants will be free to leave on hourly buses to Weymouth and Portland, but are encouraged to return to the accommodation by 11pm each night.
While local authorities will do everything they can to provide support, Bano says the barge will undoubtedly put a strain on everybody concerned. He calls on Christians to consider the sermon on the mount and “be present for our fellow humans in distress.”
A number of churches in the Dorset area have been doing just that as they’ve stepped in to provide support.
Councillor Paul Kimber from Dorset Council tells Premier Christian News: “Our group has made welcome packs for them, with all the necessary things you’d need if you went to another country and had nothing. The church communities have been supporting them from all the denominations around … and we’ve had fantastic liaison and advice from all the churches as a movement.”
The Barge is part of the government’s plan to discourage dangerous Channel crossings by migrants. Those currently on the barge are expected to remain there for some three to nine months while their claims are processed, according to Cheryl Avery, the director for asylum accommodation at the Home Office.
One of the men on board is reported to be an Iranian Christian, who fled the Islamic republic because of persecution.
Article Eighteen is a Christian charity working to bring greater religious freedom in Iran. Director Mansour Borji tells Premier there are many reasons Christians who are known to the Iranian authorities would want to leave:
“Many of them live on daily basis with the fear of being arrested and detained and receive prolonged prison sentences. Some of them even get flogged for having communion wine."
Borji explains why Christians fleeing Iran might seek to come to the UK: “When you're fleeing, you don't have much choices, you're at the mercy of whoever helps you get out of the country. Often they seek a place where they could be free from all those fears and anxieties, Europe and Northern American countries or places where they find those freedoms. And UK, of course, it's closest to home, an English speaking country.”
He says many Christians who have experienced imprisonment for their faith in Iran continue to face equally difficult struggles as refugees. Quoting a person Article Eighteen has worked with, he says: “Back in Iran, when I was imprisoned, at least I knew my wife and children were home and free. Whereas here, I don't have that assurance, and I have to fear about what happens to my children, their future, and also my wife when they're in need of an operation or they're not having food on the table.”