Social Justice

Bibby Stockholm: Death of asylum seeker on barge is devastating but 'not surprising', charity says

Migrant and refugee charities have warned that incidents of self harm and suicide are all too common in the asylum system, in the wake of a death on the Bibby Stockholm

Bibby Stockholm

The Bibby Stockholm engineless barge floating at Falmouth Docks in 2023. Image: Ashley Smith / Wikipedia

Charities have reiterated warnings over conditions on the Bibby Stockholm after the news of a death onboard the barge.

A man living on the vessel, housing asylum seekers off the coast of Dorset, died in a suspected suicide on Tuesday (12 December) morning.

Home secretary James Cleverly told MPs the death will be investigated, but it has prompted migrant and refugee groups to highlight the isolation faced by those on board.

Residents were still in the dark about what had happened, said Steve Smith, CEO of Care4Calais, a charity in touch with those on the barge. It echoes a situation earlier in the year, where residents found out about legionella onboard from the charity, not the authorities.

“Nobody had told them that. We were telling them don’t drink the water,” Smith told The Big Issue. After the incident, claims Smith, those onboard were told simply that there had been an incident, and that faith leaders would come onto the barge.

“Nothing about this surprises me. It doesn’t surprise me that given the appalling conditions onboard, that somebody took their own life,” said Smith. Those taken off the Bibby Stockholm after the first evacuation refer to it as a “floating prison”, Smith added.

“There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go, no word on when your asylum claims are going to be finalised,” Smith said, claiming residents are even made to sign out a basketball in order to use the barge’s court.

“These are people who in many cases who have been through things like torture, detention.”

Care4Calais also released a statement saying the news of the suspected suicide was “devastating” and that the UK government must “take responsibility for this human tragedy”.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said the incident should be a wake-up call for the government on its asylum policies.

“We still need to learn the full circumstances behind the death, but we remain very concerned about the  fear, isolation and despair on people seeking asylum – including those on this barge – are subject to.” said Valdez-Symonds.

As part of the government’s plans to reduce the use of asylum hotels, migrants were moved back onto the Bibby Stockholm in October after initially being evacuated when legionella bacteria was found in the water supply.

Incidents of self-harm and suicide are all too common within the UK’s asylum system, warned Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council.

“Supporting men, women and children in the asylum system that many are deeply traumatised and feel isolated, unable to get the help they need. Some are so desperate they self-harm and feel suicidal,” said Solomon.

The circumstances of the death are not yet known. It comes ahead of a vote on the government’s plans to revive the Rwanda deportation scheme, which parliament’s human rights watchdog has condemned as breaking international law.

Ann Salter, head of clinical services North East at Freedom from Torture, said detaining asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm had a profound impact.

“This latest tragedy is yet another reminder that the Government’s punitive anti-refugee policies are not only cruel, but they cost lives,” said Salter.

“From the survivors I work with every day, I know that the cramped and dangerous conditions on the Bibby can be profoundly retraumatising for those who’ve survived torture and persecution, in addition to traumatic experiences they’ve suffered en route to the UK.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “This is a tragic incident, and our thoughts are with everyone affected.

“The welfare of all those in our care is of the utmost importance, and we take our responsibility for their wellbeing incredibly seriously.  

“This will now be investigated by the police and coroner. It is right that the facts and circumstances surrounding this death are established.”

Help is available if you’re struggling with your mental health. Samaritans can be contacted for free, 24/7, by calling 116 123 or through their website here.

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