Social Justice

'I thought I was going to die': The reality of life on controversial asylum barge Bibby Stockholm

In an interview with the Big Issue, a former resident of the Bibby Stockholm has described life on board the barge, from medical problems to internet being cut in the wake of a suspected suicide

Bibby Stockholm

'Mentally, it was very stressful for me', said the former resident of the barge.Image: Ashley Smith/Wikipedia/Big Issue composite

Bibby Stockholm management turned the internet off on the barge for two days after the suspected suicide of Leonard Farruku, a former resident has alleged.

Residents were kept in the dark in the wake of the death and found out what had happened through news articles, the man said, whose name is being withheld to protect his identity.

In an interview, he also described life during four months onboard the controversial barge – which houses asylum seekers off the coast of Portland, in Dorset – detailing difficulties in accessing health care, poor conditions inside rooms.

“They cut the network for two days – we couldn’t share or use anything,” said the former resident, speaking to the Big Issue through an interpreter.

“They didn’t say it’s because of the incident, they said it’s a technical issue and we are trying to fix it. Before the incident everything was fine and we used to send messages.

“After two weeks, after people started not to mention the accident, then the network came back, it was normal.”

‘We saw the news before the management of Bibby Stockholm notified us’

Leonard Farruku, who came to the UK from Albania, died in a suspected suicide on 12 December. The night before, the former resident told the Big Issue, he heard screams on his floor at midnight, and said security were calming a man down.

The next day, he was at a class held by the council in Portland when word began to come through on a communal WhatsApp group, set up by management but used by residents to share information about the gym, or track down lost TV remotes.

Links to news articles about Farruku’s death and short videos of ambulances and police cars captured by witnesses were sent to the group, the man said. But they were quickly deleted. It was only later that day, when they returned to the barge, that residents received a WhatsApp message from management.

“In the evening, after the journalists started to arrive and the news was everywhere, we received a message on the WhatsApp group saying we would like to notify you that somebody has suicided himself on the barge, and we are sorry about this bad news, unfortunately we can’t notify you anything about the identity and it’s going to be confidential and we can’t share any details with you,” the former resident said.

“We saw the news before the management of the barge notified us,” he said.

“The information we received about the suicide in general, we were like any other person that’s watching from outside the barge, and it was very confidential. But as a witness to the situation, we were all sad. As someone who used to be around us, and walking between us, as someone who didn’t want to be on the barge, and he’s been forced to be in this place – dead. All of us tried to ask about what was happening, but everyone was saying oh it’s confidential.” 

The whole chat history was also deleted, the former resident claims, with those on the barge told they could no longer use it to send messages.

Farruku’s death had a lingering impact on the residents. “On that day, we couldn’t sleep. For one month, I couldn’t stop thinking about the situation,” he said. 

“When I was walking the corridors, I was thinking he used to walk here. When I used to eat at the restaurant, I was thinking oh he maybe sat on that table. It wasn’t a good feeling for me for almost one month, and after that I tried to cope with the situation.”

‘Mentally, it was very stressful for me’

In November 2023, the man was moved from an asylum hotel near Gatwick to the Bibby Stockholm barge. He described his room as “very, very small”, with a cold bed frame, which would wake him in the night if he touched it. When he asked for a second pillow, to help him sleep, he said he was told he would have to wait a month.

“Mentally, the environment of the room was really bad. Mentally, it was very stressful for me. The room was very very small. There was no extractor fan at all. In the bathroom there was a small hole, but there was no extractor fan inside the bathroom,” he said.

When the population of the Bibby Stockholm started growing, with the WhatsApp group reaching 300 members, the man said it became harder to live on the barge.

“After that the situation began to be worse and you wouldn’t be able to breathe inside from the crowded people. I decided to start going out,” he said. He would have breakfast, and then leave the barge, to “try to breathe as much as I can, fresh air, because when I go back it’s stressful.”

In December, shortly after Farruku’s death, the man became sick and tried to access healthcare onboard the barge.

“I got very very sick, and I thought I was going to die,” he said.

“I tried to get in touch with the healthcare, with the doctors, and they didn’t take me seriously. At that time, it was winter, everybody was sick, everybody wanted an appointment with the GP, and they gave me an appointment after five days. I told them maybe I’ll be dead after five days or maybe I’ll be feeling better,” he added.

In the end, he swapped an appointment with a friend and was seen the next day. But prescribed medication did not arrive promptly, he said, leading to another bad night.

“My experience with the healthcare service was stressful and bad,” he said. “Even though when I got sick, I couldn’t walk to get my food. I asked them if my food could be delivered to my room. They said I had to come and collect my food otherwise you’re not going to get it.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not recognise these claims.

“We take the welfare of all asylum seekers very seriously, and all concerns raised by any of the asylum seekers affected are dealt with sensitively. The food provided on the barge meets NHS Eatwell standards, and where concerns are raised about any aspect of the service delivered on the barge, we work with the provider to ensure these concerns are swiftly addressed.”

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