Refugee prison hulk plumbs new depths of mistreatment

16 September 2023

By Millie Collins

It seems every week brings fresh news of a Tory scheme to humiliate asylum seekers. From the Manston  scandal to the ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ and the Rwanda plan, every headline promises new mistreatment. Then over the summer refugees were sent to live in cells on a barge.

The Bibby Stockholm, a 220-bed accommodation barge, recently moored off Portland, Dorset. The government wants to ‘house’ asylum seekers on it while their applications are processed. This is the Tories’ alternative to accomodating them in hotels, an issue seized upon by the right wing media and fascist groups like ‘Patriotic Alternative’, who have held racist demonstrations outside.

Sunak bragged that his policy will ‘save the taxpayer money’, and claimed ‘this is about fairness—fairness ‘for the British taxpayer’, not for the vulnerable people seeking refuge. However, analysis by The Guardian has revealed that the barge only saves £10 per head per day when compared with hotels and constitutes 0.08% of the budget currently used to house asylum seekers. It isn’t about the money—it’s about appeasing the Tory’s reactionary base before an election and scapegoating minorities to distract from their own failures.

The barge, previously used by the Dutch government in the early 2000s, was opened on 7 August as a key part of the government’s ‘small boats week’—a carnival of racist soundbytes and photo-ops lapped up by the Tory press. The first 39 of the 500 single men to be housed on the barge had to be evacuated after just four days when the deadly legionella bacteria was detected in the water pipes.

Although the ship is only intended for 220 occupants, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has crammed an additional 286 traumatised asylum seekers in by doubling up on rooms and converting ‘leisure spaces’ into dorms for 4–6 people.

A calculation by the Independent concluded that ‘at full capacity, each asylum seeker will have less living space than an average car parking bay.’ The TVs have been disconnected to ‘encourage socialisation’. With grubby beige paint on the walls and cold linoleum lining the floor, the barge is less like a housing facility and more like a prison.

Standing behind a 15ft fence this ‘secure facility’ will have security on-board at all times, some with military training. Leaving the barge won’t be easy; occupants have to go through airport style scanners and bag checks, before leaving the secure compound via a shuttle bus. They are expected to follow a list of rules, including a ‘voluntary’ curfew of 11pm, no guests, and sleeping on the barge every night. The government claims this is all in the name of residents’ safety, ignoring their own role in stoking up just the kind of hostility that racists are exploiting to threaten harm to the refugees.

The 39 asylum seekers who were briefly on the barge sent a three-page letter to Braverman expressing their despair at being trapped on the barge and appealed to her to help them find freedom in the UK. Conditions onboard drove one resident to attempt suicide and, despite the claims from the Home Office that a nurse would be onsite five days a week, he had to be saved by his fellow residents.

In the letter, they describe the barge as ‘an unsafe, frightening and isolated place’. The 39 bravely stated they would not be re-entering the barge on the grounds that they have been traumatised by the experience.

The appalling living standards on board echo the infamous ‘prison hulks’ of the Victorian era. Even in that period, known for its cruel treatment of the vulnerable, these ships were the target of public outrage over inhumane living conditions and not being cost-effective. As a result their usage was discontinued.

There has been local support for the refugees. Over 50 anti-racists greeted the asylum seekers on their arrival with welcome packs of food and medicine. Stand Up to Racism, alongside local groups such as the Portland Friendship Group and No to the Barge have been organising protests and support.

The Fire Brigades Union also sent a pre-action protocol letter to the Home Office on 25 August, signalling their intention to initiate legal proceedings against the department. They set out their concerns, calling the barge a ‘potential death-trap’, and asked that no asylum seekers be returned to the barge until their concerns have been addressed.

The union accuses the Home Office of failing to implement adequate risk assessments and questioning whether the number of evacuation points. The Tories were quick to dismiss these claims as politically motivated—as if their actions were not! As FBU general secretary Matt Wrack pointed out, ‘fires do not discriminate based on immigration status, and neither can fire safety regulations.’

Despite the fact that roughly two thirds of refugee claims are successful, even under the Tories’ racist system, asylum seekers are being treated as criminals while they await their outcomes. Asylum seekers must have the right to live and work as they choose, free from persecution. In the short term workers and socialists must organise to shut down the Bibby Stockton and defend asylum seekers from racist violence.

But on its own this is not enough. Solidarity must extend to all the victims of Britain’s imperialist regime and exploitation of the semi-colonial world. This means demanding equal rights for all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Say it loud, say it clear—refugees are welcome here!

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