Bibby Stockholm: is this how the UK welcomes asylum seekers?

Written by: Beth Webb-Strong


Is housing asylum seekers on board the Bibby Stockholm an innovative strategy to reduce costs and maximise on space in asylum accommodation? Or does new asylum accommodation foster exclusion, isolation, and altogether fail individuals seeking protection in the UK? This article highlights the challenges faced by asylum seekers that have been placed in temporary accommodation by the Home Office, and the lack of humanity in the Home Office’s approach.

TW: Suicide

Despite the government cycling through multiple Home Secretaries in recent years, Home Office policy continues to employ the same tactics of deterrence and hostility towards migrants. It is clear that recent Home Office policy is brazenly designed to, as our prime minister Rishi Sunak puts it, ‘stop the boats’. This includes housing asylum seekers in accommodation such as disused army bases and moored barges.

In January 2023, the Home Office announced a plan to house asylum seekers on floating accommodation on a barge moored in Portland, Dorset. The capacity on board the Bibby Stockholm, a boat previously used as a floating detention centre in the Netherlands, was doubled to 500 by requiring individuals to share cabins. In August 2023, less than a week after the first asylum seekers moved on to the barge, those on board the Bibby Stockholm were relocated due to the discovery of legionella bacteria in the water system. Since asylum seekers have returned to the barge, individuals have reported appalling living conditions and have disclosed extreme distress, anxiety and feelings of increasing isolation due to living on board.

The Home Office claim that the introduction of new asylum accommodation is designed to reduce costs. However, following a reduction of numbers permitted on board the Bibby Stockholm to 425 after an internal fire risk assessment, it has been reported that the daily cost of housing an asylum seeker on board the barge is 10% higher than in a hotel.

Plans to house asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm is just one example of the use of inappropriate locations to accommodate asylum seekers. In December 2023, a challenge to the use of disused military bases as asylum accommodation was dismissed by the High Court R (Clarke-Holland) v Secretary State for the Home Department & Anor [2023] EWHC 3140 (Admin). It is clear that the use of inhospitable lodgings to house individuals awaiting decisions on their asylum claims is just one further attempt to deter those travelling to the UK to seek protection.

In December 2023, a 27-year-old Albanian man seeking asylum in the UK, Leonard Farruku, was found dead on the Bibby Stockholm. It is suspected that Leonard died by suicide. Yusuf Deen Kargbo, who was sharing a room with Leonard Farruku, has since spoken out about the lack of safety and support on board, criticising the Home Office for housing asylum seekers in a ‘place that is not good for them’. Yusuf Deen Kargbo was not offered any support following the death of his roommate and was only removed from the barge after an intervention by the charity, Care4Calais.

Steve Smith, CEO of Care4Calais, said: “In a caring and compassionate society the trauma of experiencing the suicide of the person you have been told to share a room with would immediately trigger a package of support. Not under this government.’

Many of those seeking protection in the UK are extremely vulnerable and have experienced torture and trauma, not to mention the anxiety-inducing ordeal of navigating the UK asylum system. Some asylum seekers have also undertaken perilous journeys by sea to reach the UK and are then expected to live on the water. Reports from some asylum seekers living on board disclose that living on board the barge is ‘like a prison’ and that they fear they will wake up to find the Bibby Stockholm halfway to Rwanda.

The tragic death of Leonard Farruku highlights the lack of humanity in Home Office provision of asylum accommodation. Asylum seekers housed in unsuitable environments like the Bibby Stockholm are at risk of increased trauma due to isolation and the lack of support provided. This recent tragedy calls for an urgent response to the Home Office’s failure to provide appropriate accommodation to those seeking protection in the UK.