First Minister Humza Yousaf has been urged to commit to housing more asylum seekers in Scotland by Home Secretary James Cleverly – who suggested refugees could stay on a cruise ship in Edinburgh.

In a letter dated February 16, Mr Cleverly said Scotland had taken proportionately half the number of asylum seekers given accommodation in England, and asked that efforts were made to “rapidly” increase asylum accommodation north of the border.

Mr Cleverly said “greater parity” needed to be achieved across the UK regions to provide “fair and equitable” asylum accommodation, and asked to revisit options in Scotland, “such as our plans last summer to use MS Victoria in Edinburgh, which unfortunately we could not obtain agreement on”.

The cruise ship was used by the Scottish Government to temporarily house Ukrainian refugees, from July 2022 until July 2023.

Cabinet meeting
Home Secretary James Cleverly (Jeff Moore/PA)

The Home Secretary cited a speech made by Mr Yousaf, which pledged “the Scottish Government — and the Scottish National Party — will always say we are proud of the benefits migrants bring to this country”.

Mr Cleverly wrote that Scotland currently houses eight asylum seekers for every 10,000 people – less than Wales, and half the 16 in England, and urged Mr Yousaf to “continue to work together to help address the challenges we collectively face”.

He also cited speeches by other SNP politicians, including Alison Thewliss MP- who said recently that Scotland “will take our responsibilities seriously” while criticising the UK Government.

The letter said: “The Home Office has made a commitment to exiting asylum hotels which are both unsustainable and costly to the taxpayer. In October 2023, we announced the first 50 hotel closures across the UK by the end of January which was the first step towards this. However, there is much more to do, and the only way to exit hotels is to continue to grow our asylum accommodation estate.

“This issue extends right across Great Britain, and it is essential that each part of the country plays its part. For dispersal and initial accommodation alone, Scotland currently house eight asylum seekers for every 10,000 people.

“This is in comparison to nine in Wales and 16 in England. I know that you and your colleagues take this issue seriously and there are many instances where you have signalled that the Scottish Government is willing to house more people.

“Providing safe and appropriate accommodation to those that claim asylum will help you deliver that aim and so I look forward to your support in going further in Scotland.

“In Scotland, there are currently 4,251 occupied bedspaces against a Full Dispersal occupancy target of 7,133 for 2023. In addition, since the launch of Full Dispersal in April 2022, the number of occupied bedspaces in Scotland has reduced by 857. Therefore, I am writing to ask for your support in rapidly increasing the asylum accommodation estate in Scotland.

“I believe that in order to achieve this, the use of large sites in Scotland, of which there are currently none, may need to be factored in. We should revisit options in Scotland, such as our plans last summer to use MS Victoria in Edinburgh, which unfortunately we could not obtain agreement on. This was despite the fact the Scottish Government had used it to house Ukrainian refugees.

“Reaching parity between different parts of the country on the number of asylum seekers per capita is the only way to deliver fair and equitable asylum accommodation. It is therefore paramount we work together to provide asylum accommodation that is equitable across Great Britain.”

Freedom Ballet of Ukraine
The MS Victoria ferry berthed in the Port of Leith, Edinburgh (Jane Barlow/PA)

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Home Office is responsible for provision of asylum accommodation, including hotels procured as contingency initial asylum accommodation. Ministers have been clear that the UK Government needs to respect the important role of local authorities in asylum dispersal and should provide more financial support for them as it presses ahead with plans to close asylum hotels.

“Scotland has consistently played its part in supporting asylum dispersal since it was introduced over two decades ago. We are committed to supporting people to integrate into our communities and to providing the safety and security they need as they begin to rebuild their lives.

“Scotland is offering sanctuary to more than double the displaced Ukrainians per head of population than any other part of the UK, with more than 39,000 people with a Scottish sponsor being granted a visa, and more than 26,000 of those having arrived in the UK via a Scottish sponsor, with over 20,000 as a direct result of the Scottish Government acting as a super sponsor.

“As we did with the Syrian and Ukrainian Resettlement programmes, which saw all 32 local authorities in Scotland participate and welcome displaced people into their communities, Scotland stands ready to offer refuge and sanctuary for those who are displaced.

“From the outset of the conflict in Gaza, the Scottish Government has called on the UK Government to use its existing UK Resettlement Scheme, and ensure it is aligned with UNHCR to provide those who want to leave with the support they require.

“We have received the Home Secretary’s letter and will respond in due course.”