The Bibby Stockholm is an accommodation vessel that has a history of housing workers, military personnel, and asylum seekers in Europe. It is now moored in Portland, Dorset, serving as accommodation for asylum seekers awaiting a decision in the UK. The barge is the latest among a series of attempts made by the current government to “stop the boats,” which is one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s five key priorities for 2023.
The Bibby Stockholm continues to make headlines with the recent discovery of legionella bacteria in the vessel’s water supply, which can cause Pontiac fever, or worse, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia called Legionnaire’s disease. The 39 asylum seekers that boarded the barge on Monday, August 7, 2023, were consequently evacuated five days later, on Friday, August 11, 2023.
Adding to the controversy is the fact that Dorset Council had received, and informed, Home Office contractors of test results identifying Legionella aboard on Monday, August 7, the same day asylum seekers were sent on the barge. However, Health Secretary Steven Barclay claims that Home Office ministers were not made aware of the results until Thursday evening. Asylum seekers were then only notified and evacuated from the barge on Friday evening at around 5:30 pm.
In addition to the concerns regarding physical health safety, many have highlighted the harm the barge’s conditions could potentially cause to the mental health of asylum seekers.
Speaking with The Guardian, Daniel Trilling, journalist and author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe, said: “The key issue is that if people are put in really large-scale accommodation, even if in theory, they’re free to come and go, it can feel quite institutional and quite like a prison to people.
“This is actually a very common risk for asylum-seekers because…[they] have fled violence and persecution, and they will have been through, very often, very traumatic journeys. They’re very likely to have been detained or even tortured at points in their journey, or in countries that they fled.
“So forms of accommodation that remind people of those situations can very often trigger mental illness or compound trauma that people are already suffering. And in the Netherlands, when these barges were used, that was the case.”
Research has shown that 32% of asylum seekers and refugees suffer from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and 31% suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This means that compared with the general population, MDD is 7 times more likely in asylum seekers and refugees, and PTSD is 4 to 5 times more likely.
Trilling is not the only one to raise concerns about the mental health impacts of being housed on the barge. The Refugee Council, along with more than 50 other organisations, campaigners, and councillors have collectively written an open letter to Bibby Marine, the company that owns the Bibby Stockholm, on July 4, 2023, addressing similar issues.
The letter states: “We believe that containing people who have been through traumatising experiences, especially on a floating vessel, is cruel and inhumane.”
The letter also condemns the restriction of movement for asylum seekers, referring to Portland Port’s statement that: “Asylum seekers will not be free to move around the port. When on port property they will be kept on the Bibby Stockholm or in a secure compound adjacent to the barge.
“[We] will provide a bus service to take asylum seekers from the secure compound out of the port to destinations that will be agreed with local agencies.”
The open letter cites the APPG on Immigration’s Report of the Inquiry into Quasi-Detention, and Jesuit Refugee Service’s in-depth report on the experiences of men held in quasi-detention at Napier Barracks in relation to their claim that: “In our view, the barge constitutes quasi-detention.”
Both reports contain the detailed findings of inspections and investigations into asylum accommodations such as the Napier Barracks, Penally Camp, and Tinsley House. The APPG report states that these quasi-detention sites had either poor or little to no Covid-19 safety measures, hygiene, fire safety, safeguarding, mental health support, privacy, and much more.
The letter also demands a public response from the company, to address the claims that their founder was engaged in the slave trade.
Health concerns were also not the only safety concerns raised by experts about the barge. Before asylum seekers arrived, the Fire Brigade’s Union (FBU) warned that the barge could be a “potential death trap.”
This is because the barge only has two main exits and is intended to house more than 500 people when it was originally designed for 222. Narrow corridors and doorways in addition to the lack of ingress and exit points mean that emergency evacuation would be inefficient, and the result could be lethal for both the inhabitants and firefighters.
This is a position the FBU continues to hold as they revealed on August 11, the day asylum seekers were evacuated, that their request for a meeting with Home Secretary Suella Braverman on August 2 to discuss these issues had yet to receive a response.
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