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Asylum seekers returning to Bibby Stockholm barge is 'health catastrophe waiting to happen'

Asylum seekers are set to return to the Bibby Stockholm barge today, which has capacity for 500 people

An aerial view of the Bibby Stockholm migrant asylum docked in its final position at Portland Port in Dorset.

The Bibby Stockholm migrant asylum docked in its final position at Portland Port in Dorset, welcomed by protesters. Image: Max Willcock/Bournemouth News/Shutterstock

The return of asylum seekers to the Bibby Stockholm barge is a “physical and mental health catastrophe waiting to happen”, human rights and migration groups have warned.

Migrants placed on board in August were evacuated after legionella bacteria was discovered, but the Home Office is set to re-embark asylum seekers today (19 October).

Moored in Portland Harbour, Dorset, the 222-room barge is intended to reduce the government’s bill for housing asylum seekers, 

“We’ve warned this government time and time again that packing refugees onto barges is a mental and physical health catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Matilda Bryce, policy advisor at Freedom from Torture said. 

“And, after only a few days on board, refugees who were taken off the Bibby in August spoke of the severe and damaging impact it had on them.“

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A High Court judge last week dismissed a legal challenge from a Dorset councillor, Carralyn Parkes, paving the way for the barge to be put back in use.

Parkes had argued the government’s plan for the barge violated planning rules, but was told her case was not arguable.

“This is a bleak moment in our history. Vulnerable people who came here seeking sanctuary are being sent back onto the Bibby Stockholm, which was recently described as a ‘death trap’ by the Fire Brigades Union,” said Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, communications director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

“Housing people on barges is another example of the kind of inhumane thinking that has got our asylum system into its current state of chaos.“

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Along with the Bibby Stockholm, the government is attempting to reduce the £8 million daily bill for placing asylum seekers in hotels by reducing the amount of time they are given to find accommodation after being granted refugee status.

But this change, along with sped-up processing of cases, is resulting in homelessness for refugees.

“Returning people to social isolation on a prison-like barge highlights once again ministers’ determination to pursue their disastrous, inhuman asylum policy that has already done great harm at huge cost to the taxpayer,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director.

“The government keeps casting around for ever more unsuitable places to store people in the limbo of its asylum system in the false belief that at some point people fleeing conflict and persecution will simply stop seeking safety in the UK.

“Refusing to process people’s asylum claims fairly and efficiently will only increase the already enormous backlog that the government has created.”

Laura Kyrke-Smith, executive director of International Rescue Committee UK, urged the government to reconsider the decision, adding that the Bibby Stockholm would not speed up asylum claims or provide alternatives to dangerous Channel crossings.

“The decision to return people to the Bibby Stockholm barge is a step backwards from treating them with the compassion they deserve,” Kryke-Smith told the Big Issue.

“Isolating vulnerable people in cramped and unsuitable conditions compromises their basic rights and wellbeing. The majority of these people have fled violence, conflict and persecution and should go on to be recognised as refugees by the UK government – they must be treated with far greater dignity.”

The Home Office confirmed the original cohort of asylum seekers will be returned to the barge from 19 October.

“The Home Office has started to send letters to asylum seekers to confirm the re-embarkation of the Bibby Stockholm and notify them that they will be accommodated on board, following the vessel completing all necessary tests,” a Home Office spokesperson said.

“The letters confirm the next steps for asylum seekers and reiterate that all asylum accommodation continues to be offered on a no-choice basis.

“Delivering alternative accommodation sites, such as the vessel, is more affordable for taxpayers and more manageable for communities, due to healthcare and catering facilities on site, 24/7 security and the purpose-built safe accommodation they provide.”

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