In the port of Portland, South Dorset a 15 feet metal fencing and two guarded gates encircle a towering presence: The Bibby Stockholm. Standing as the Home Office’s first asylum seeker barge, this vessel arrived in Dorset three weeks ago, yet its empty interior bore a stark contrast to its imposing exterior. This week, it hosts its first occupants, as hundreds more are set to join them in the days ahead.
The Bibby Stockholm, a three-level barge, aims to accommodate asylum seekers, a group that has faced significant challenges and setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These individuals, many of whom have endured hardships in their pursuit of safety and a better life, now find themselves residing within cramped beige-walled cabins. Up to six people are expected to share each room, resulting in living spaces smaller than an average car parking bay.
While the barge may seem like a solution, its design raises concerns. The vessel’s security is rigid, with walk-through scanners and bag checks for entry and exit. Security personnel, including those with a military background, are present around the clock, preparing for a range of scenarios including disputes and fights. A secure compound confines inhabitants, allowing only shuttle buses to access the port exit for safety reasons. This structure is a reminder of the fragility of freedom.
Yet, as Amnesty International’s past report reveals, this isn’t the first time asylum seekers have been housed in such conditions. The Bibby Stockholm’s history is fraught with tragedy. Once used by the Dutch government in the 2000s, reports emerged of rape, abuse, and even death onboard. The memories of four people sharing a cell, enduring fights over basic amenities, and stifling conditions linger.
However, despite an internal health document’s multiple concerns about potential disease outbreaks on the Bibby Stockholm barge, ministers are persisting with the transfer of asylum seekers onto the vessel. The outbreak management plan, obtained through an NHS Dorset freedom of information request, underscores the risk of diseases like diphtheria, TB, legionnaires’ disease, norovirus, salmonella, and scabies.
This draft plan, composed by Home Office contractors Bibby Stockholm, Landry & Kling, and Global Ship Solutions, strongly underscores the necessity of surge staffing in the event of significant outbreaks. Meanwhile, lawyers representing asylum seekers are continuing to file last-minute legal challenges, arguing against the safety of using the barge as housing.
The recent comments by Lee Anderson, the deputy chair of the Conservative Party, further accentuate the dehumanising rhetoric often attached to asylum seekers. His callous suggestion to “f*** off back to France” undermines the complexities these individuals face and erodes the empathy we should extend.
While certain Tory MPs have privately voiced similar sentiments, the unease within ministerial circles remains largely hidden from the public eye. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk, for example, lauded Mr Anderson’s candid language, hailing it as a reflection of the nation’s “righteous indignation.”
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, known for his directive to remove a Mickey Mouse mural from a children’s asylum centre under the pretext of it not being “age-appropriate,” opted for a more measured response, asserting that “everyone chooses their own language.” However, he maintains that Mr Anderson’s point, a sentiment he aligns with, is indeed valid.
For those who arrived on this barge, their journeys have been marked by adversity. Many have fled conflict, survived torture, or escaped modern slavery. Placing them in cramped quarters resembling a “quasi-floating prison” may exacerbate their trauma and further dehumanise them. Resisting this environment, several asylum seekers have refused to board the Bibby Stockholm. Their choice speaks volumes about the fear instilled by this setting.
Amnesty International condemns using such vessels to house asylum seekers, emphasising their vulnerability in this context. The Bibby Stockholm, despite its appearances, signifies a failure in our commitment to compassion and human rights. The words we use in this discourse matter, for they shape perceptions and influence policies.
The past speaks to us, recalling how similar barges saw suffering and death in the past. This ominous present resonates with echoes from the 2000s, raising the question of whether we have truly learned from history. In the wake of Europe’s response to migration in that era, the use of such vessels did not just confine bodies, but crushed spirits and suppressed hope.
As the government presses on with these plans, aiming to fill the barge with 500 individuals, there are urgent concerns to address. The nature of this accommodation, rife with echoes of trauma, calls for profound reflection. The promise of cheaper solutions cannot justify compromising the dignity and well-being of vulnerable individuals.
As of now, the most recent breaking news has revealed that Legionella bacteria, which can cause a serious type of lung infection known as Legionnaires’ disease, has been found in the water on the barge only four days after individuals began boarding. Emergency evacuation has commenced, as reported by Sky News.
The Bibby Stockholm stands not just as a vessel in a harbour, but as a testament to our ethical compass. The impact on these lives, their futures, and the message we send to the world carries a weight we must acknowledge. It is not enough to merely house bodies, we must recognise the humanity, potential, and dreams that reside within them.