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Refugees Set Adrift: UK's Home Office is Complicit in the Death on Bibby Stockholm

Updated: May 23

On December the 13th, a man died by suicide whilst detained on the United Kingdom's flagship asylum detention vessel, Bibby Stockholm. This was predictable and preventable. The British government must be held accountable for this tragedy. 

The government has said it will fully investigate the man’s death, but an external and objective investigation must also take place. Bibby Stockholm is run according to government rules, and it is this government that is responsible for the safety of the people on board. 

Bibby Stockholm is a barge berthed in Portland Port. It originally had 222 rooms, measuring an average of 10 ft by 12 ft. Rooms have been converted to allow the vessel to have the capacity to hold over 500 men seeking asylum whilst their asylum application is under review by the Home Office, with some dormitories being shared amongst six men. The government has contracted the barge to be used as a de facto detention centre for people seeking asylum for at least 18 months. People whose asylum claims are refused will be deported immediately. Others could be suddenly removed to asylum camps in Rwanda

Absurdly, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, which investigates deaths in immigration detention centres, has refused to examine the death on Bibby Stockholm because it is not officially a detention facility. But, in all but name, it is. 

Before taking his own life, the man who died had been heard shouting about the terrible conditions on board, repeating the line, “I am not a scapegoat”. A fellow man on the barge told the Guardian that this death was predictable. The conditions on board are hostile, oppressive and traumatising, especially for those people on board who have already experienced significant trauma. One man explained how the cramped conditions on board Bibby Stockholm would trigger memories of him hiding from ISIS. 

Since its opening, the use of Bibby Stockholm as an asylum accommodation has been persistently condemned as a morally indefensible way of treating people seeking asylum. Men onboard described to the BBC how they were being treated like prisoners, with 24/7 security on board, including airport-style security scans when boarding and leaving the vessel. Five days after the detention facility was brought into operation in August this year, Bibby Stockholm had to be closed because legionella bacteria was detected in the water supply. 

In the few months since August, charities have documented the devastating implications to the well-being of the thirty-nine people who were initially moved onto the ship. Once Bibby Stockholm was reopened after the legionella detection, some of the men who had been on board expressed feeling “too traumatised to return to the barge”, with conditions leading to one incident of a suicide attempt. Amnesty International, Care4Calais, and Stand Up To Racism are amongst organisations that are actively campaigning against the use of Bibby Stockholm, comparing it to a “floating prison”. 

Similarly, the Fire Brigades Union has expressed several concerns for the health and safety of the men onboard, with the general secretary, Matt Wrack, deploring the government to “end this barbaric practice immediately”. 

The government promises English classes, Wi-Fi, activities, and a gym on board, but the reality is very different. For example, Wi-Fi speeds reach a meagre speed of 1 GB per second, further isolating the men living on the barge. Most people seeking asylum depend on Wi-Fi to contact their loved ones. It is also essential to access email updates from the Home Office on their asylum claims. Not attending a Home Office interview jeopardises a person’s asylum claim – even if they did not know they had one. Moreover, people detained on the Bibby Stockholm barge have to be given permission to leave the barge and are driven by a coach to and from the places they are permitted to visit. They are not allowed to engage with local communities or British culture; this compromises asylum claims and gives grounds for the Home Office to initiate deportations to countries of origin or camps in Rwanda. 

Isolating those on board from the rest of society has contributed to regular reports of suicidal ideations and intentions amongst men on board, with no action being taken by the government or subcontractors to mitigate these risks. 

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick explains that by using barges and ferries to detain people seeking asylum, the UK is simply following the lead of its European neighbours. Other European countries have used boats to detain people seeking asylum; Bibby Stockholm was formerly used in the Netherlands in 2005 for the same purpose it is now. However, undercover reports of life on board revealed shockingly high cases of abuse, including beatings and sexual exploitation. 

An undercover security guard wrote

“The longer I work on the Bibby Stockholm, the more I worry about safety on the boat. Between exclusion and containment I encounter so many defects and feel so much tension among the prisoners that it no longer seems to be a question of whether things will get completely out of hand here, but when. […] I couldn’t stand the way prisoners were treated […] The staff become like that, because the whole culture there is like that. Inhuman. They do not see the residents as people with a history, but as numbers.”

Now in UK ownership, the conditions on Bibby Stockholm have caused a man to die - a man detained on board who was seeking asylum, protection, help in the UK. 

Image: Tim Green

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