Earlier in the year, Scotland announced plans to convert a second passenger ship into temporary housing as the number of Ukrainian migrants entering Scotland continues to rise and threatens to surpass the available accommodation.
The Scottish government recently announced a three-month suspension of its visa programme, citing the requirement to make arrangements due to a housing shortage and an ongoing inflow of applicants. To support their plans, the Scottish Government decided to lease the 48,000-tonne cruise ship M/S Ambition. The ship is now docked in Glasgow with the aim of housing up to 1,750 Ukrainian refugees.
The ship, which was constructed in 1999 for a short-lived start-up cruise line, was eventually purchased by the world-famous Carnival Corporation, which operated it alongside Ibero Cruises, Costa, and eventually AIDA, before selling it to the fledgling British company Ambassador Cruise Line in January 2022. Since being renamed Ambition, the vessel has lain dormant in Bar, Montenegro as the cruise company had not planned to place her into service until March 2023.
What’s the plan?
The Scottish Government say here that the M/S Ambition has been chartered for six months and will be located at King George V docks on the River Clyde.
“The ship has capacity to host up to 1,750 people in 714 cabins, and, as with the arrangements for the M/S Victoria I at Leith, families will be accommodated according to their needs.”
People on board the vessel will have access to restaurants, child play facilities, shops, cleaning, and communal spaces. They will be free to come and go from the ship, as with any other temporary accommodation.
That sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, it certainly promises to be, but until the ship is up and running, we only have her east-coast sister ship, the M/S Victoria I at Leith, to use to gauge the plans put in place by the Scottish Government. To find out more on this, I spoke to Maggie Chapman MSP about both ships and the overall programme.
From the basics to entertainment
I started off by asking about the standard of accommodation and was pleasantly surprised at the level of amenities on offer. Chapman told me “I have no information about the M/S Ambition, however, the M/S Victoria is a large cruise ship, with cabins you’d expect on such a vessel: small and compact, with ensuite shower rooms. There is some storage provided elsewhere on the ship for larger items (suitcases and the like). The shop space has snacks, toiletries, and other essentials for the residents.”
“Meals are provided, and there are other facilities like activity programmes for children and young people, space for entertainment and events, a bar, a laundry service, and of course, Wi-Fi. There is a relationship established with a local medical practice for general practice healthcare and dentistry. Services provided by Edinburgh Council and partners are linked up to the ship too.”
Both vessels have entertainment facilities, and the project is making use of them; on the now in-use east-coast vessel, I was told by Chapman that “the entertainment space is used for events, films, get-togethers and the like.”
Culturally sensitive options available
I continued by asking what the overall state of the facilities on board the leased cruise ships are in, and I was told that “The cruise ship seems just what you’d expect (without the duty-free shop). When we visited, it was around lunchtime, and the wide variety of food available for lunch (free) looked fresh, tasty and culturally sensitive. The rooms are small but adequate. Links to other services are available.”
I was also told that the refugees onboard would have the ability to come and go as they please. “The Ukrainian people can come and go, although they do have to show their passport when they return to the ship, and they are not allowed visitors. So, there are some constraints/restrictions.”
No port power
One thing that seemed to be an issue on the east coast appears to be, according to reports, the running of polluting diesel engines 24/7 to provide power. In some ports, the vessels can be hooked up to the mains at the port, but I was told this isn’t an option in Glasgow either. “No ports in Scotland have charging points for cruise ships, so the ships have to use their own engines.”
The plus side in this case, I suppose, is that the vessel isn’t close to a residential area. With regard to noise, the dock is beside one of the busiest hospitals in Europe so can’t be louder than air ambulances or blue light ambulances coming and going around the clock.
I asked Chapman what she would say to the people arriving on the ship as a welcome to Glasgow and to Scotland. “Welcome to Scotland. I hope you are able to make something of a home here, something of a life. I hope that you find some peace here, and the support you need to deal with the loss you’ve faced. I hope you find warmth and welcome in Glasgow or wherever else in Scotland you might be. Scotland is your home for as long as you need it to be.”
How can the public help?
When I asked what the public can do to help, Chapman noted clothing and toiletries as being significant requirements for people fleeing the warzone.
“At the M/S Victoria, some residents arrived with virtually nothing, so contributions of clothing, toiletries, accessories, children’s toys, etc. would be welcome. There may well be a central hub for such contributions, rather than dropping these off at the ship itself – worth checking. I’d encourage members of the public who can offer accommodation to do so through the Homes for Ukraine scheme or similar: the sooner we can get residents off the ships into communities, the better. The ship will support the matching process, but we need more spaces in people’s homes to be able to offer more support to more people.
There might also be the possibility of music/arts/other creative events – but again, check with the ship first. And of course, we need public pressure to ensure we make the right political decisions around continued support for refugees from Ukraine, sanctions on Russia, and the like. We must continue to offer sanctuary for refugees, but this will be easier with the continued support of the Scottish public. And we desperately need more affordable housing across the country: we should have facilities for refugees in our communities – we need to work on that!”
Helping is the right thing to do
As a final note, Chapman echoed what I think is safe to say is a sentiment we all share.
“I wish these ships were not necessary. But I am glad people in Scotland have opened their homes and hearts to those fleeing Putin’s illegal war. We must do whatever we can to provide support.”
I’ll keep this brief.
Welcome to Scotland, everyone.
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