Social Justice

Bibby Stockholm ruling: Home Office blasted as 'inhumane' as asylum seekers told to return to barge

Asylum seekers are set to return to the barge after the High Court dismissed a legal challenge

Asylum seekers were evacuated from the Bibby Stockholm in August after legionella bacteria was detected. Image: Tim Green/Flickr

The government is intent on “carrying out unworkable and inhumane schemes” and risks retraumatising some of society’s most vulnerable, refugee charities have warned after a High Court ruling paved the way for asylum seekers to return to the Bibby Stockholm barge.

A High Court judge today (11 October) told Dorset councillor Carralyn Parkes, the mayor of Portland, she did not have an arguable case against the barge being used in Portland Harbour. Asylum seekers are now expected to return to the barge next week, Sky News reports.

But leaders of asylum charities told The Big Issue the barge represents dehumanising treatment of those in need, and symbolises the faults in the UK’s asylum system.

The “devastating” news will mean more unnecessary suffering for asylum seekers, said Matilda Bryce, asylum policy and campaigns manager at Freedom from Torture said.  

“After only several days on board, those who were taken off the barge in August described the severe mental and physical impacts that the experience had on them,” said Bryce. 

“What we’re now seeing is a government intent on carrying out unworkable and inhumane schemes on some of the most vulnerable people in society who simply want a safe place to live.”

Asylum seekers placed on the barge were evacuated on August after legionella bacteria was detected on the barge – but initially remained on board for four days after the deadly strain was detected.

Billed as an alternative to accommodating asylum seekers in hotels, the government intends to use the Bibby Stockholm to house those awaiting a decision on refugee status. It has promised to eliminate the asylum backlog for Christmas – leading to fears, reported by the Big Issue, of a wave of refugee homelessness.

Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, said the asylum system should be run by properly-funded local authorities, rather than profit-making private companies.

“Segregating, squeezing and detaining people on a prison barge will put people’s lives at risk, cause horrendous health issues and make existing problems worse, just like we’ve seen in hotels,” Hilton said.  

“While these demoralising and brutal mass holding sites come at an enormous human cost, the private firms contracted to run them trouser huge profits that run into tens of millions of pounds.”

Parkes, acting in a private capacity, argued that using the barge to house asylum seekers was a “breach of planning control” – something dismissed by lawyers acting for home secretary Suella Braverman as “without merit”. 

The Home Office has confirmed that asylum seekers will be sent back to the barge next week “following the vessel completing all necessary tests”.

It argues that the barge represents better value for taxpayers and is more manageable for communities, maintaining that the safety of its residents “remains our utmost priority”.

“This is dehumanising treatment of some of the most vulnerable people,” said Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice.

“We have already seen through the use of hotels how damaging placing those seeking asylum into unsuitable locations is to their mental and physical health is. The use of barges, such as the Bibby Stockholm, risks making this even worse. This is a vessel which was previously decommissioned from being used for the same purpose by the Dutch due to safety concerns. “

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