Europe’s Latest Solution for the Refugee Shelter Shortage: Cruise Ships

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November 24, 2015


Sweden’s Migration Board is in discussions with several cruise ship owners to provide shelter for several thousand of the 360,000 refugees forecast to enter the country in the next year. The vessels could be docked in Swedish port cities by early 2016, according to an official statement from the Migration Board.

Germany is already hosting 180 refugees aboard two ships docked on the Emscher River in the city of Dortmund, and the country is actively searching for more. “We have an obligation to provide humane accommodation to all refugees who come to us, and we have to explore all the options,” Lorenz Caffier, interior minister of the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania region, told the newspaper Ostzee Zeitung in an interview earlier this month. 

Germany currently has housing capacity for about 500,000 refugees, according to a report by Ernst & Young, far short of the 870,000 forecast to arrive during 2016. Sweden is already housing asylum-seekers in summer camps, a tent city, and even a Wild West theme park called High Chaparral. Many of those facilities are now filled. As winter approaches, the search for shelter has become increasingly urgent.

Finding suitable ships may be difficult. “Cruise ships are fully booked with passengers year-round and do not have unused capacity that can be diverted to house refugees,” said a spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association, a Washington-based trade group. It doesn’t help that the global cruise industry is “relatively young, so there aren’t lots of older ships just knocking around,” said Calum Kennedy, an analyst at Clarksons Research, a London-based outfit that tracks cruise ship orders.

Even if vessels can be found, they may not be in great shape. In the early 2000s, New York looked into using mothballed cruise ships as homeless shelters but scrapped the idea because of the high cost of retrofitting.

Refugees could end up living in smaller vessels used for river and coastline cruises. That’s what happened in Dortmund, where the city government chartered two retired 1970s-era vessels. The boats have double and triple rooms with showers, televisions, and free Wi-Fi. Caritasverband, a local charity, is providing meals and other services to refugees, who moved into their new digs a few weeks ago, said Jürgen Sauer, a spokesman for the charity.


Ferries are an additional possibility. In 2014, for example, a former Baltic Sea ferry was retrofitted in Canada to provide housing for workers in a remote British Columbia town. Officials in Vancouver are considering a similar solution for refugees arriving there.

Ships aren’t the only possible offshore solution to the problem. A report in the newspaper Aftonbladet noted that the Sweden might even put refugees on offshore platforms built for oil-rig workers.


<em>©2015 Bloomberg News</em>

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