(Bloomberg) -- UK officials warned last year that plans to detain asylum seekers on cruise ships and barges could end up being more expensive than housing them in hotels.

Written advice produced in 2022 by Home Office civil servants working under Boris Johnson’s government suggested the cost of mooring the vessels at ports would be hundreds of thousands of pounds an hour, according to documents seen by Bloomberg. 

Any program large enough to house a significant number of the people who cross the English Channel in small boats could cost more than £7 million ($8.6 million) per day — about the amount the UK government says it spends on using hotels — the documents said.

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The documents emerged as the government unveiled plans to move away from housing migrants in hotels. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is considering using the vessels as part of his pledge to reduce the number asylum seekers crossing the Channel.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick confirmed the government is looking at the possibility of housing migrants in vessels in a statement on Wednesday to the House of Commons. He also announced plans to use military sites in Essex and Lincolnshire, as well as a separate location in East Sussex, to accommodate “several thousand” asylum seekers in re-purposed barracks and portable cabins. Sunak is also proposing using Catterick Garrison barracks in his own constituency in Yorkshire, according to Jenrick.

‘Eye-Watering’ Costs

“These sites are undoubtedly in the national interest,” Jenrick said. “We have to deliver them if we are to stop the use of hotels. We have to deliver them to save the British public from spending eye-watering amounts accommodating illegal migrants.”

To allay concerns about pressure on local services near the new sites, Jenrick promised that “basic health care” would be available, as well as “around-the-clock security,” close collaboration with the police and extra funding for local authorities affected.  

If fleshed out, the proposal to use ships is controversial on more than just grounds of cost. In the advice issued last year, officials told then-Home Secretary Priti Patel that it was possible such a plan would be illegal under laws on arbitrary detention. Johnson’s government ultimately rejected the proposal as unworkable following the advice.

A spokesperson said the UK government was trying to reduce “unprecedented pressure” on the asylum system. “We continue to work across government and with local authorities to identify a range of accommodation options,” they said. “The government remains committed to engaging with local authorities and key stakeholders as part of this process.”

‘Chasing Headlines’

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper raised the civil service advice reported by Bloomberg in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, accusing ministers of “chasing headlines” in an attempt to “distract” from the backlog of asylum claims. Alison Thewliss of the Scottish National Party also raised the matter, asking what had changed since last year’s advice rejecting the idea was issued.

Last month Sunak’s government introduced legislation allowing for the detention and deportation of all asylum seekers arriving in Britain outside of so-called safe and legal routes. That includes small-boat Channel crossings, which numbered 45,756 in 2022.

‘Perverse Incentive’

In the 2022 advice, officials said that ports would likely reject requests to moor cruise ships holding migrants for months on end, or charge exorbitant costs. There would also be greater safety and security issues for the people on board, the officials warned.

The only plausible way to address safety concerns would be to use holiday cruise ships, but ministers rejected this option after concluding the optics would be worse than utilizing five-star hotels.

Speaking to Sky News on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said the current policy of housing asylum seekers in hotels was creating a “perverse incentive” and that barges would be a “possible” alternative,

“We will look at the whole range of options, low-cost accommodation, ex-Army barracks and, where it’s appropriate, as has been used elsewhere in Europe, and I think in Scotland as well, vessels if they can safely and responsibly be used,” he said.

(Updates with Jenrick remarks starting in fifth paragraph.)

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