From file: Yachts at Leith Docks, Edinburgh, Scotland | Photo: Picture alliance / Sally Anderson / EdinburghElitem | Sally Anderson
From file: Yachts at Leith Docks, Edinburgh, Scotland | Photo: Picture alliance / Sally Anderson / EdinburghElitem | Sally Anderson

Scotland has started to house Ukrainian refugees who fled the Russian invasion on a cruise ship docked off Edinburgh, the devolved Scottish government has said.

The first Ukrainians boarded the specially chartered M/S Victoria on Tuesday, in a policy that critics brand potentially unsafe and unsuitable.

The devolved Scottish government plans to use the vessel, which is says is "fully staffed" and safe, to house up to 1,700 Ukrainian refugees in 739 cabins until next January to fill an accommodation backlog for refugees.

Other European states, including France, Estonia and the Netherlands took similar measures earlier this year, to provide temporary accommodation for Ukrainian refugees.

Access to services

The government insists they will have access to support services, including healthcare and benefits, as well as "unrestricted access" to services onshore.

"We do not want people spending more time in temporary accommodation, such as the ship, for any longer than is absolutely necessary," government minister Shona Robison said.

"But we want to make them as comfortable as possible during their stay and we have worked with partners to provide a variety of services on-board for guests in addition to the support services available."

She noted they include restaurants, child play facilities with toys and books, shops, laundry, cleaning, wifi access and communal spaces.

However, opposition parties and welfare organizations in Scotland have voiced concerns over access to schooling for younger refugees and the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks on-board.

"People fleeing war were promised a safe place to stay in Scotland, but instead they have been stuck on a cruise ship," Scottish Labour's Sarah Boyack said.

A need for permanent accommodation

Scotland has provided housing for more than 9,000 displaced Ukrainians since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

A sponsor scheme has brought nearly 100,000 Ukrainians so far to Britain, but Scotland suspended its version of the scheme earlier this month after a dramatic increase in the number of new applicants.

It said more time was needed to match new arrivals to temporary and long-term accommodation. Many European countries are currently struggling to house refugees, due to a housing crisis in many cities, which has lead to overcrowding in temporary accommodation.

Earlier this year, the Estonian government chartered a cruise ship as a temporary home for several thousand Ukrainian refugees.

In France, several ships were set up to house Ukrainian women and children for several months. However, these are now being shut down. On 10 June, a huge cruise ship that had been set up as an emergency refugee shelter was closed, with passengers relocated to different areas in France. The Dutch government, which is currently housing asylum seekers on cruise ships, due to shortages in conventional facilities, has announced that it will consider anchoring the boats at sea if a large enough harbor cannot be found to dock them.

Detention of migrants on cruise ship

Aside from providing temporary accommodation in the midst of a housing shortage, the idea of detaining refugees and migrants on cruise ships is not new.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, irregular migrants arriving in Italy were forced to undergo a period of isolation in the cabins of cruise ships. This procedure was also used as a way for the authorities to prevent migrants from absconding. The conditions in some of these ships were criticized for being inhumane with very little medical support for passengers on board.

Former finance minister Rishi Sunak -- who is competing with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to replace outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- recently unveiled plans to detain migrants on cruise ships after they crossed the Channel.

The proposal was subject to hostile counter-briefings, with newspapers reporting it was "laughed off the table" by ministers and officials over costs and legal concerns.

Under international maritime law, a rescued person must be disembarked in a "place of safety". However, this place of safety, according to the legal definition, cannot be at sea, it must be located on land.

With AFP


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