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Bibby Stockholm: A needless death, foretold

The warnings were ignored, the concerns played down. And now a man has died. He will not be the last person to lose their life on the Home Office barge. 

December 14 2023, 15.02pm

The ample, desperate warnings about the government’s controversial ‘solution’ to tackle the migrant backlog by housing asylum seekers on a giant barge were tragically proved to be founded this week after a man was found dead aboard the vessel. The death is believed to be a suicide, which potentially speaks to the conditions on the Bibby Stockholm. 

Charities and campaigners have long warned that the barge is “cramped, unsafe and isolated”. There are also concerns about compounding trauma by housing people who may have faced harrowing overseas journeys on a boat. 

Back in August, on the day when the first residents were meant to board the Bibby Stockholm, the barge was instead evacuated when the deadliest strain of legionella was found in water samples onboard.

"It is a floating death trap that unmasks the true depths of the callousness of our government."

The 39 who were evacuated begged not to be returned to the barge due to what they called “inhumane” conditions. They even wrote a letter to Suella Braverman, documenting the poor conditions and revealing that one person had already attempted suicide

Now, just four months after this documented suicide attempt, there are thought to be as many as 300 male asylum seekers living on the barge. It is a floating death trap that unmasks the true depths of the callousness of our government. It’s a problem that stretches far beyond the Bibby Stockholm, and infects the entire system.   

In 2021, 25 rights organisations warned of the risk of self-harm and suicide among children seeking asylum in the UK. The group No Deportations found 3,581 reported self-harm attempts in UK immigration removal centres between 2007 and 2016. At least 42% of deaths in immigration detention since the year 2000 have been self-inflicted.

The warnings were ignored, the concerns played down. And now a man has died. If conditions are not improved immediately, or the barge is scrapped altogether, he will not be the last person to lose their life. 

Since the latest tragedy earlier this week, the Fire Brigades Union general secretary, Matt Wrack, has called for the barge to be closed with immediate effect, stating that there are “very real safety concerns about forcibly keeping people onboard a floating prison.” 

“Ministers must end this barbaric practice immediately,” he added.

Many local people feel the same. Back in July, the arrival of the Bibby Stockholm to Portland Port in Dorset sparked hostility and backlash, with local group No To The Barge claiming the asylum seekers would lead to a spike in crime and antisocial behaviour. But when news of the apparent suicide trickled out in to the local community, it was met with compassion, empathy—and outrage. 

Local residents have flocked to the port to leave flowers, cards and posters. They have spoken of the moments of hope they have cherished over these past months, the acts of charity and welcome that trampled the seeds of hate sown long before the asylum seeking residents arrived in their town. In their grief, lies the humanity that so many of our elected representatives seem to lack. It offers a glimmer of light in this dark moment of national shame.

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