4th Mar 2024

UK's new asylum 'floating prison' barge — outlier or trendsetter?

  • The Bibby Stockholm engineless floating barge (the oblong block with windows in the foreground, not the red ship), moored at Portland Port in Dorset, UK (Photo: Danny Callaghan)
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The UK government has begun moving asylum seekers onto a barge — amid legal challenges and protest from human rights groups. The Bibby Stockholm, moored off the south coast of England, is expected to hold over 500 men aged from 18 to 65 while they await the verdict of asylum applications.

Originally built to accommodate just 220 residents, the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) describes Bibby Stockholm as a "potential deathtrap" — for both residents onboard and firefighters.

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  • The perimiter exclusion fence around the Bibby Stockholm (Photo: Danny Callaghan)

Overcrowded, narrow corridors and limited access to exits have led to demands from the FBU, representing the vast majority of firefighters in the UK, to amend the Conservative government's plans.

Opposition also comes from lawyers and NGOs.

Situated behind imposing, barbed wire fencing with security around the clock, asylum seekers onboard Bibby Stockholm will not be permitted to leave and enter the residence at their will.

"We are especially concerned that people are forced to stay on the barge are not going to be able to move freely," says campaign and advocacy group Migrants Organise. "In effect [residents] will be detained."

Doubling the residence's capacity, each cabin on Bibby Stockholm has been fitted with a bunk bed. Refugee charity Care4Calais, who is providing access to legal support for people being forcibly relocated to the barge, points to the inhumane conditions residents will be placed under.

"Among our clients are people who are disabled, who have survived torture and modern slavery and who have had traumatic experiences at sea," explains Steve Smith, Care4Calais' CEO. "To house any human being in a 'quasi floating prison' is inhumane. To try to do so to this group of people is unbelievably cruel."

The strong opposition to the government's policy had been expressed prior to the discovery of Legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires' disease, in the water supply on board — resulting in the first cohort of residents to be temporarily disembarked. Health and safety concerns have since been amplified.

Leading human rights organisation Amnesty International has condemned the policy to house asylum seekers in confined spaces.

"The Bibby Stockholm is an utterly shameful way to house people who've fled terror, conflict and persecution," says Steve Valdez-Symonds from Amnesty International UK. "The government should fairly and efficiently determine people's claims instead of perpetuating costly backlogs, human misery and organised criminal exploitation."

Meanwhile, the asylum backlog in the UK is at a record high, with over 160,000 people awaiting verdicts at the end of 2022 — a number rivalled in Europe only by Germany, who received almost four times as many applications in 2021 than Britain.

Waiting times in the UK are more than double that in European countries such as France, Belgium and Germany, leaving applicants in precarious situations for up to two years and frequently without access to public services.

The ECHR, UK, and Rwanda

In June 2022, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) intervened to prevent the UK government's scheme to fly refugees and migrants to Rwanda while claims are being processed. Since then, leaders and politicians in successive Conservative governments have openly discussed the possibility of Britain exiting the ECHR.

As part of the initiative to 'stop the boats' (the populist slogan, adopted by prime minister Rishi Sunak's government, referring to the refugees and migrants crossing the English Channel), immigration minister Robert Jenrick stated the government will do "whatever is required" to curb arrivals when asked about withdrawing the UK from the ECHR.

Current home secretary Suella Braveman has also expressed her view that it would be in the UK's interest to depart from the European-wide convention.

Meanwhile, this month Conservative party deputy chairman, Lee Anderson MP, said asylum seekers who did not like conditions on the barge could "fuck off back to France" — without rebuke from Downing Street.

The ECHR falls under the remit of the Council of Europe, not the European Union — meaning the UK's participation continues, for now, despite Brexit.

However, if the UK were to withdraw from the ECHR, legal issues would arise concerning the Good Friday Agreement with Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the EU-UK Trade and Co-Operation Agreement, although not contingent on the UK's adherence to the ECHR, obliges an ongoing commitment to human rights.

UK — outlier or trendsetter for EU?

The EU agreed upon a reform to the asylum system in June, allowing member states to reject refugees and migrants in exchange for a nominal fee (€20,000 per person) and to independently determine which countries are considered "safe" — an integral condition for establishing right to non-refoulement and third country deals.

This could pave the way for EU member states to strike deals with third countries, similar in scope to the UK's arrangement with Rwanda.

Denmark, a member state of the EU, has passed legislation enabling asylum seekers to be relocated to third countries outside of the EU while their claims are being processed, openly discussing the prospect of a deal with Rwanda.

Governments in Italy and Hungary and Poland pushing anti-migration agendas are also likely to see this as an opportunity. Meanwhile, support for far-right, nationalist governments is surging throughout many European countries — with the Alternative for Germany (AfD) claiming almost one-in-five votes, according to recent polls.

The EU's asylum reform also sees a new procedure to filter applicants through primary assessments at the European border.

Those undergoing the assessment, including families and children, will be detained in "prison-like centres at Europe's edges," says Oxfam EU migration expert Stephanie Pope.

Author bio

Danny Callaghan is a British freelance journalist in Berlin, covering migration policy, social justice and public health issues.


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