The Home Office considered putting wave machines in the Channel to stop migrant crossings, it was revealed today – as it emerged asylum seekers could be housed on old ferries or flown to Papua New Guinea.
The option was among ‘blue sky’ ideas looked at by officials to discourage migrants from trying to cross in small boats – although it was quickly rejected.
The government has been working on ways to overhaul the creaking asylum system and crack down on abuse.
But Home Secretary Priti Patel has been left furious at slew of negative briefing about the plans for ‘offshoring’ to crack down on abuses.
Sources complained that already-dismissed proposals such as creating a processing site on Ascension Island, more than 4,000 miles from the UK, were being leaked by officials who ‘don’t like the whole concept’.
However, there are also claims that Boris Johnson’s top aides, including Dominic Cummings, are the targets rather than Ms Patel, as Downing Street has been pushing heavily for the policy.
Ironically, a snap YouGov poll has found the public backed the idea of by a margin of 40 per cent to 35 per cent. However, that proposal has already been ditched.
An ally of the Home Secretary said ‘offshoring’ was being attacked by people who did not like it.
‘It is a perfectly logical idea, but someone who doesn’t like the whole concept said ‘’you can only do it if it happens 4,000 miles away’’ and leaked that,’ they said.
The Isle of Wight proposal is understood to have ‘problems’, but other islands around the UK and old ferries are being seriously looked at.
‘This is still very early days,’ one source said.
Marina with boats on the Solent at East Cowes, Isle of Wight. Migrants who land in Britain could be flown to hostels on the island
Migrants are currently being housed in Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, which has been repurposed for them
New proposals are part of Priti Patel ‘s over-arching programme to crackdown on the Channel migrant crisis
The Home Office’s top civil servant Matthew Rycroft faced a grilling on the leaked plans when he faced MPs this morning.
He was asked by Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier if there was any truth to the ‘cloud cuckoo land’ proposals, replying: ‘This is in the realms of a brainstorming stage of a future policy, everything is on the table.
‘No decisions have been made. We are at the stage of looking at all sorts of options and responding to ministers’ questions.’
Allies of Ms Patel said she did not believe the negative briefing was coming from her department.
‘People are having a bit of a free for all,’ one said. ‘There is a lot of briefing from the Cabinet Office. They have a task force (on offshoring) there.
They pointed out that much of the material was ‘damaging to No10’. ‘There are people who have spent the last three weeks going after the PM and now are going after his advisers.’
Official documents marked ‘sensitive’ and produced earlier this month, summarise advice from officials at the Foreign Office, which was asked by No10 to ‘offer advice on possible options for negotiating an offshore asylum processing facility similar to the Australian model in Papua New Guinea and Nauru’.
Home Office aides have also been ordered to draw up feasibility studies for the hostel-type centres on islands within the British Isles.
It emerged yesterday that officials had previously looked at locating a centre on Ascension Island or St Helena, thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic.
However, using such distant British overseas territories was ruled impractical over costs and logistical problems. Now, proposals for asylum centres on islands closer to home will be drawn up.
Migrants could be processed on disused ferries moored off the coast under the plans being considered.
Another option being considered is buying retired ferries and converting them into asylum-processing centres.
Boris Johnson is keen to deter migrants from making dangerous crossings from France with the proposals.
The Home Office’s top civil servant Matthew Rycroft told the Public Accounts Committee: ‘This is in the realms of a brainstorming stage of a future policy, everything is on the table’
Meanwhile, The Times has been told that the Home Office held discussions about moving migrants to decommissioned oil platforms in the North Sea while their applications are processed.
However, ministers decided that it was a ‘no go’ .
According to the Financial Times, other ‘blue sky’ options discussed include laying booms, barriers or even small boats together in parts of the Channel to stop migrants reaching the shore.
Another option was to have boats with pumps generating waves in a bid to force boats back into French waters.
However, the possibility was rejected amid concerns migrants in already-overladen boats would be capsized.
The plan to move migrants to ships is thought more realistic and is being given serious consideration.
The leaks have sparked another briefing war around Ms Patel – with echoes of the angry row in the run-up to Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam quitting last year and launching an employment tribunal.
One Whitehall source told Playbook: ‘There is a rotten core of civil servants who have never gotten over Brexit… and fear the hard rain that is coming. They’re the enemy within and will be rooted out.’
Ms Patel is understood to believe the processing centres would deter migrants who hope to settle in UK towns and cities. ‘Offshoring is still at the scoping stage and policy is yet to be decided,’ said a Government source.
‘But we are looking at all options to stop the small boats in the Channel, and offshoring is part of that. In terms of locations you could look at the Shetlands, the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, and those sorts of areas.
‘There are also lots of little islands up by Scotland.’
The source added: ‘This is all fairly down the track and it’s not going to be an overnight thing. It will also require changes to legislation. And if we were going to build anything at any of these places we would have to ensure there are appropriate services and provisions for asylum seekers who are sent there.’
The source said any accommodation constructed on an island would not take the form of secure detention centres. ‘We do not detain asylum seekers, they are free to come and go,’ he said.
It comes after it was revealed last month that a former Second World War barracks in Folkestone, Kent was now being used by the Government to house up to 400 asylum seekers.
Opening the camp was intended to put out a discouraging message to anyone thinking of crossing the Channel illegally. The sparse conditions are very different from the comfortable accommodation complete with a £40 a week spending allowance some migrants have been given on arrival in Britain.
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dover, Kent, by Border Force following a small boat incident in the Channel yesterday
Under a parallel project also being considered by the Government, asylum seekers who arrive in Britain could be flown out to processing centres in Morocco, Moldova or Papua New Guinea
Gibraltar, another British overseas territory, had been ruled out as a location because it is too small, it is understood.
The source added: ‘We are looking at what other countries do in terms of offshoring asylum applications and what would be appropriate for us. Government departments including the Foreign Office were asked to look at options.
‘Ascension Island was one of the places they came up with. But the Home Secretary does not think that location is feasible.
‘Offshoring is something that was previously proposed by Tony Blair’s government.’ It is unclear how a Home Office asylum facility could be set up on the Isle of Man, which is self-governing.
Separately, leaked documents marked ‘sensitive’ revealed that Downing Street asked the Foreign Office to consider processing centres in Morocco, Moldova and Papua New Guinea at the direct suggestion of the Prime Minister.
The three countries were specifically ‘floated’ by No 10, The Guardian reported. However, the Foreign Office identified a number of diplomatic and practical problems with the plan.