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Britain and the Bibby Stockholm Barge Controversy

Just days after the first asylum seekers stepped aboard the controversial Bibby Stockholm barge, Legionella bacteria were found in the water systems, forcing an evacuation. The contentious vessel in Dorset’s Portland Port has once again attracted substantial media coverage and has been subject to immense scrutiny, with this latest fiasco reigniting safety concerns and discussions around the treatment of refugees.


Since 2018, more than 100,000 people have made the perilous journey across the English Channel in small boats, fleeing war and persecution in search of a safer life. In its latest attempt to control the number of boat crossings and dissuade asylum seekers from making the dangerous journey from France, the government is housing them on the barge while awaiting the result of their asylum cases.


In the past year, the Conservatives have introduced several new controversial schemes, including the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, which was recently deemed “unlawful” by the Court of Appeal, and the introduction of the Illegal Migration Act. Many charities, including Care4Calais, have condemned the proposals and, for some years now, accused the British Government of lacking compassion for refugees.


Why use a barge?


The government claims that using barges to house asylum seekers is a more cost-effective alternative for the British taxpayer than funding expensive hotel stays. Recent numbers reveal that more than 51,000 migrants currently live in hotels across the U.K., totalling a daily cost of £6 million.


The daily running costs of Bibby Stockholm is roughly £20,000, and it can supposedly accommodate 506 people at one time, providing them with food, security, entertainment, and healthcare facilities.


The Conservatives urge that housing people on barges is not a new concept but is actually a tried and tested method in many neighbouring countries. In the nineties, Germany used the Bibby Stockholm vessel to provide safe accommodation to homeless people before it was shipped to the Netherlands to house asylum seekers in 2005. In more recent years, the barge has hosted a series of construction workers in Scotland and Sweden.


Safety Concerns


The recent discovery of Legionella on board the Bibby Stockholm has only fuelled pre-existing concerns over safety, with the Fire Brigades Union calling it a “potential death trap.” Critics have branded the vessel as inhumane and highlighted particular anxiety with the long and narrow corridors, where in an emergency people could become crushed while attempting to flee.


Issues have also been raised regarding overcrowding after it emerged that rooms that previously housed one person will now accommodate two. An anonymous asylum seeker in conversation with the BBC spoke of the cramped space and its prison-like feel, while another told Sky News he felt they were being “treated like less than animals.”


The local Tory MP for the area, Chris Loder, voiced his concerns, demanding that the initiative be halted unless the government provides concrete evidence that the barge is safe for double the number of people that it was initially designed for.


In response to Mr. Loder’s worries, the Home Office responded by saying: “Using vessels as alternative accommodation, like our European neighbours are already doing, will be better value for British taxpayers and more manageable for communities than costly hotels.” Seemingly avoiding any mention of his doubts surrounding safety compliance.


A local councillor in Glasgow, who previously stayed on the Bibby Stockholm for work purposes, described the vessel as “claustrophobic” and said that it would only worsen mental health conditions for asylum seekers.


Explaining his experience on board, he said: “You were really only on the barge to eat and sleep… Which is obviously quite [different] from being on it indefinitely with no money and no ability to work or anything like that."


A Nation Divided


Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has reiterated his commitment to the barge, telling journalists: “It is about the unfairness, in fact, of British taxpayers forking out £5 million or £6 million a day to house illegal migrants in hotels up and down the country, with all the pressure that puts on local communities. We’ve got to find alternatives to that.”


While Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer appears convinced the barge is only a result of other governmental failings concerning the asylum system. He said: “I don’t think the answer to this is barges, hotels, massive costs… That’s the symptom. The problem is that the government hasn’t done enough work to break the gangs that are running this trade, this vile trade, and to process the [asylum] applications.” Before labelling the whole scenario as: “A complete and utter mess.”


Like politicians, the issue has caused division among the public. Many have voiced their frustration over taxpayers continuing to foot the bill, particularly during the cost of living crisis. Others feel that an influx of people entering the country illegally via the Channel will exacerbate issues already present, such as housing shortages, a lack of school places, and growing patient backlogs on the NHS, as millions are already struggling to get timely GP appointments.


Other supporters of the vessel believe the government is favouring asylum seekers over homeless people, with one Twitter user tweeting: “Homeless veterans… would love to have a safe place on a barge with free food. I am certain if you were fleeing persecution so would you!” His words were met with frustration from other users, one responded: “Tories have consistently shown that they don’t give two hoots about homeless people.”


Both sides of the debate have staged protests outside the barge site, some welcoming the asylum seekers with packs that include toiletries and maps of the local area. While others have contested their arrival, raising concerns about the impact 500 men will have on their already deprived town.


The government has vowed to continue with the barge and hopes it will be back up and running in the next few weeks.


Photo credit: PA Images


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