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Bibby Stockholm is a 'monument to government failure', says IRC

As the first asylum seekers board the controversial Bibby Stockholm barge, campaigners say they should be allowed to integrate in British communities

People board the Bibby Stockholm immigration barge on August 7, 2023 in Portland, England. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Housing vulnerable asylum seekers in accommodation like the Bibby Stockholm barge and outside local communities can “retraumatise” and “isolate” them, the International Rescue Committee has said, and puts them at a severe disadvantage to rebuilding their lives in Britain if they are granted refugee status. 

As the first group of asylum seekers board the Bibby Stockholm barge located off Portland on England’s south coast, campaigners and activists fear the floating accommodation will further isolate future refugees from British communities. 

“The Bibby Stockholm barge is fast becoming a monument to the government’s failure to address the very real challenges at the root of the asylum system,” said Mark Nowottny, UK advocacy director at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “Housing asylum seekers in wholly unsuitable conditions will do nothing to cut the backlog of asylum cases, reduce dangerous Channel crossings, integrate refugees into our communities, or solve the housing shortages facing refugees and the British public alike.”

Instead the government should focus on pragmatic solutions, he told the Big Issue, to “hear claims fairly, make decisions promptly, and invest the resources needed now to reduce costs in the medium-term”.

“The people at the heart of these policies – the majority of whom have fled violence, conflict and persecution and who go on to be recognised as refugees by the UK Government – deserve to be treated with far greater dignity. Solutions that are compassionate and effective exist: the Bibby Stockholm is neither.”

“Many of these people will become recognised refugees, if they had their asylum case heard,” added Genevieve Caston, director of UK Programmes at the IRC “But if you’re not able to actually interact with British citizens, how can you have any ability to integrate?

“If they’re outside local communities, they don’t have the opportunity to thrive. And it can often retraumatise people, they can become much more isolated. That initial excitement of coming to a new country can be lost.”

Experts including the Fire Brigades Union have raised alarm bells over the conditions inside the barge, which has been refurbished to house more than 500 asylum seekers, up from the 200-odd oil and gas workers who previously called it home. Documents released by NHS Dorset warn that a disease outbreak on the barge could quickly spread, the Guardian reports. 

The Bibby Stockholm is part of a huge crackdown on undocumented migrants and asylum seekers as the government launches “small boats week”, unveiling a range of policies to deter undocumented migrants from crossing the British channel. 

Rishi Sunak told LBC radio the barge will “help solve a serious problem”, referring to the government’s desire to reduce the cost to taxpayers of housing individuals seeking safety in the UK. 

The prime minister defended the plan as “not a shambles”, saying it is an example of his government “doing something different that hasn’t been done before.”

But opponents stressed the benefits that housing asylum seekers in communities can bring while their claims are processed.

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Muhammad Irshal Khan fled to the UK from Afghanistan after the Taliban retook the country in 2021. He worked in construction building houses for the British military in Afghanistan, and is currently living in temporary hostel accommodation while he studies for a degree in construction and project management at the University of Portsmouth. 

He told The Big Issue “the government should think about alternative ways of housing people that are not on boats”. 

“There are many professional asylum seekers, they have good degrees and proper education, they want to work,” he said, speaking from a graduation ceremony for refugees hosted by the International Rescue Committee. 

“Why not house them in communities where there is a low population instead and give them documentation to work? It would be beneficial to both the asylum seekers and the communities.” 



“The accommodation is wholly unsuitable,” Carralyn Parkes, mayor of the island of Portland, where the giant barge is located, told the PA news agency. “Human beings should be cared for in communities and certainly not on barges,” she continued. 

Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council, wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter): “The UK government wants [Glasgow City Council] to give consent to an asylum barge being sited in the city. We will not give it. Glasgow’s communities are proud to be beacons of support and integration for asylum seekers & refugees. This is the polar opposite of that.”

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Ministers have also announced plans to sharply increase the fines for employers and landlords who provide work or housing to asylum seekers or undocumented migrants. Bosses found to be employing workers without legal immigration status will face initial fines of up to £45,000 for each person, while landlords could be forced to pay £5,000 for each lodger. 

Asylum seekers are currently banned from taking up paid employment while they wait for an outcome to their application for refugee status. While refugees are allowed to work in the UK, the barriers presented by language, a lack of local knowledge, and prejudice, they are four times more likely to be unemployed than people who were born here.

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