Geneva - In its cruel quest for illegitimate destinations for asylum seekers, the UK is forcing even disabled asylum seekers and victims of torture on board the prison-like “Bibby Stockholm” barge, warned Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor in a statement, urging the British government to respect and guarantee the human right to adequate housing in peace, security, and dignity.
Authorities’ evacuation of asylum seekers from the barge following the discovery of Legionella bacteria in the onboard water system confirms fears about the serious humanitarian consequences that may befall migrants and asylum seekers when they are housed in places with inadequate health measures. Euro-Med Monitor emphasised the importance of the UK government abandoning plans to return migrants and asylum seekers to the barge or any other location that could endanger their health or human dignity.
The first group of 15 asylum seekers boarded the infamous huge and prison-like Bibby Stockholm barge on Monday as part of the government’s alleged efforts to reduce the cost of asylum accommodation. Moored in Dorset, Southern England, the Home Office anticipates that the three-storey vessel will house up to 506 single men aged 18-65 while they await the outcome of their asylum applications, and is explicitly excluding several categories of vulnerable people.
According to internal guidance, the barge must not house disabled or elderly individuals, victims of torture, rape, or other serious forms of physical, sexual, or psychological violence, people with complex health needs such as tuberculosis or other infectious diseases, or anyone with serious mental health issues. The Home Office also barred anyone at risk of “serious self-harm” or with a “history of disruptive behaviour”. Yet in breach of its own rules as well as international law, among the first asylum seekers that the Home Office attempted to put on board the Bibby Stockholm were disabled people, victims of modern slavery and other forms of torture, and unsurprisingly, several migrants who have suffered traumatic experiences at sea.
Two partially-sighted persons and some migrants with phobias of water were issued transfer orders that have already been successfully challenged by lawyers, as the ministerial department has been forced to reverse decisions on the cases of at least 20 people so far after the intervention of legal representatives. Nonetheless, the barge is not an adequate form of housing for anyone; it is simply not a safe shelter at all.
The UK Fire Brigades Union has written to Home Secretary Suella Braverman to raise concerns over fire safety on the Bibby Stockholm, citing its narrow corridors and doorways, lack of ingress and exit points, and increased occupancy, and describing the barge as a “death trap”. Similarly, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency has warned that respiratory infections are likely to spread in such cramped spaces.
It was also recently discovered that the forcible transfer of asylum seekers from hotels to the Bibby Stockholm will not result in savings, but on the contrary will in fact incur additional costs. “The government’s decision to move asylum seekers onto an unsafe, isolated barge doesn’t come from an intent to cut the costs of asylum accommodation, but rather as part of the recently passed Illegal Migration Bill criminalising small boat migrants,” said Michela Pugliese, Asylum and Migration Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor. She called the decision an attempt to deter the migrants’ arrivals by any means necessary, and create a hostile environment for them in the UK.
“Due to each asylum seeker’s recent history of potentially highly traumatic events, particularly surrounding high waves and salty waters, they should not be forced onto a giant, floating, prison-like barge with hundreds of other people, for multiple months,” Pugliese added. She stressed that “vulnerability is not always visible or easy to detect”, and that even migrants who do not appear vulnerable upon arrival are likely to become so due to time spent onboard the barge experiencing marginalisation, isolation from civil society, and other disadvantages like lack of employment options, health-care services, and social facilities.
The infamous case of the Bibby Stockholm is not an isolated incident, but evidence of the government’s wider search for additional accommodation sites inside the UK, such as disused military bases and former prisons, and even outside of the UK and the European continent. Indeed, the Home Office has revived previously dropped plans to send asylum seekers to Ascension Island, a remote British overseas territory in the South Atlantic Ocean, located 6,000 kilometres from Europe, if its separate plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda fails.
Braverman had already planned to start deporting people to Rwanda on flights last year, but the plans were forced to a halt after being ruled illegal by the Court of Appeal over flaws in Rwanda’s asylum system. A final verdict by the UK Supreme Court is expected in late autumn, but in the meanwhile, similarly externalised locations are being considered including Ascension Island, Cyprus, Ghana, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, and a British military base in Cyprus. Niger was on the list prior to the July coup, showing that the whole roster of “Plan B spots” is far from a realistic, sustainable, and ethical way to manage the arrivals and asylum requests of migrants in the UK.
Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor calls on the UK to reverse its plan to forcibly house asylum seekers on the prison-like barge Bibby Stockholm and work to accommodate them in a manner that respects their rights and dignity, as enshrined in international law and particularly in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which UK has been bound since 1976; and to guarantee asylum seekers’ human right to adequate housing, acknowledging its central importance for the enjoyment of all economic, social, and cultural rights.