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Refugees Set Adrift: The Key Players, Cronyism and Deceit



The UK immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, recently announced that fifty hotels housing people seeking asylum will be exited by January 2024, with a further fifty hotels to be exited by March 2024. According to government figures, the UK government currently uses 380 hotels to house people seeking asylum at a cost of £6 million a day of taxpayers' money, a figure Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has condemned as unacceptable. 


Filling asylum hotels way beyond capacity has avoided using at least 72 hotels, Jenrick explained. However, detaining asylum seekers in barges and redundant military barracks is alleged by the government to be even more frugal whilst they tackle the immense "backlog" of asylum claims. Commencing this restructuring of asylum provision in the UK, the government has contracted the vessel detention centre Bibby Stockholm to house people seeking asylum for at least 18 months.


Men awaiting the outcome of their asylum applications are sent to Bibby Stockholm on a "no-choice basis" and given only seven days to prepare for their move onto the vessel. Unlike the hotels used to house people seeking asylum, there is no freedom of movement around the location of Bibby Stockholm. To enter or leave the boat, airport-like security checks are done, and coaches transport people from the barge into Portland strictly to attend English language lessons, cultural integration courses or volunteering opportunities. The UK government clarifies that all other facilities, including catering and healthcare provision, are provided on board to "minimise the disruption to local communities"


Speaking to the BBC, one man recounted his experience living on the vessel when it was first put to use as asylum accommodation in the UK. He explained his fear for the health of those detained in crowded conditions and hoped he would not have to return there. Another man told the BBC how being housed in Bibby Stockholm isolated him from his religious community. Separating people who have experienced extreme trauma from their support networks is cruel and an attack on their mental well-being. This is just one of the many examples of the Home Office's construction of a pernicious hostile environment. 


Jenrick stated that using barges to house asylum seekers is crucial to save taxpayer money. It has been estimated that around £6 million a day of taxpayers' money is spent on people seeking asylum, a figure which equates to around £65 per day per person. The government claims that offshore accommodation like Bibby Stockholm will reduce expenditure on asylum seekers. However, examining the true costs of using Bibby Stockholm brings into question the truth of this claim. 

Most suspiciously, the Home Office has not disclosed how much of taxpayers' money is being spent to lease and manage Bibby Stockholm. 


Press reports have estimated at least £20,000 a day for charter and berthing alone. If this is true, then when Bibby Stockholm is at full capacity, a minimum of £40 a day will be spent on each man on board – an average of £15 less than that which is spent on people housed in hotels. 


Moreover, Dorset Council is receiving £3,500 per man moved onto Bibby Stockholm in addition to a one-off grant of £380,000 awarded by the government meant to support local charities providing services on board. At total capacity, the vessel will hold 506 people, meaning the council will receive over £2 million from the government. 


This does not take into consideration the additional costs of 24/7 security, food, healthcare, water, sanitation, etc., provided on board. 


Add to the equation the £500 million that the UK is paying France over the next three years to fund a new detention centre and extra security on the UK-France border; it is hard to see how the government will even slightly reduce tax spending on asylum accommodation. 


What it will do, however, is generate vast wealth for the businesses contracted by the government to house people seeking asylum.


By subcontracting accommodation provision to private companies, the UK government mitigates any responsibility for the treatment and welfare of the people in asylum accommodations. Meanwhile, the subcontractors are legally recognised as businesses and, therefore, must operate as such, prioritising exponential profits over any duty of care it has to its service users. So, who profits? 


Three companies primarily profit from Bibby Stockholm, each with a shady and shameful history.


First, the family-run firm Langham Industries owns Portland Port. The Langham family donated £70,000 to UKIP between 2003 and 2016. Late founder John Langham was described as an "avid supporter" of UKIP in an obituary in 2017. The family also has close links with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden. Perhaps it is the racist and xenophobic purpose of this project that piqued the Langham family's interest enough to offer Portland Port to the Home Office. 


Second, Bibby Stockholm itself is owned by Bibby Line Group Limited and leased to the government. According to Corporate Watch, this UK company offers financial, marine and construction services to clients in at least sixteen countries worldwide. Founded in 1807 by John Bibby, who had been co-owner of three slaving ships, this company has remained almost totally family-owned with annual profits exceeding £30 million pre-tax. Leaked Paradise Papers in 2017 revealed that Bibby Line Group had provided offshore corporate services with "ties between Russia and [Trump's] billionaire commerce secretary, the secret dealings of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief fundraiser and the offshore interests of the Queen of England and more than 120 politicians around the world."


Finally, Bibby Stockholm is managed by the Australian business travel services company Corporate Travel Management (CMT). Aspersions have historically been cast over CMT for its financial operations and the integrity of its business practices. In 2018, VGI Partners, short-sellers, targeted CTM, alleging over 20 red flags in the company's operations. They reported inactive offices across Europe, raised concerns over CTM's cash flows, and questioned the company's reported growth. A follow-up in 2020 further scrutinised CTM's financials, challenging their debt and transaction turnover reports. Furthermore, ethical fund Future Super has said it will divest its holdings in CTM because of the UK arrangement.


All four key players, these three businesses and the government, benefit from the inhumanity of Bibby Stockholm. The wider British public and Asylum seekers lose. 

 

Claiming that detention centres will reduce tax spending on asylum seekers is deceitful. What using detention centres like Bibby Stockholm is certain to do – and has done – is re-traumatise people who have escaped persecution, conflict, poverty, and abuse. The asylum system has been manipulated and constructed to generate vast wealth for a minority of already moneyed people at the expense of the welfare of asylum seekers and British citizens. The polity and the people are not aligned, and the divide between them is widening. 


Image: Corporate Watch

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