By Caitlin Hoyland
Upon finding out he will be forced to return to Bibby Stockholm, the on-sea asylum detention centre, a man attempted to commit suicide. Having been so traumatised from his first experience living on Bibby Stockholm, this man could not face being detained there again. In response, the government has announced its plans to replace more asylum hotels with boats like Bibby Stockholm.
The UK immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, recently announced that fifty hotels housing people seeking asylum will be exited by January 2024, with a further fifty hotels to be exited by March 2024. According to government figures, the UK government is currently using 380 hotels to house people seeking asylum at a cost of £6 million a day of taxpayers’ money. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has condemned this as unacceptable.
Recent polls show that the Conservative Party would need a miracle to win the next general election and in an act of desperation, the government are gambling on exhibiting enough racism and xenophobia to entice marginal voters to put their trust in the Tories. Closing asylum accommodation in an area has a palpable impact because people seeking asylum disappear from the community. Targeting hotel closures in the areas in the UK that are particularly hostile to refugees is a tactful way for the Conservative Party to win over voters, especially if they are in marginal constituencies.
When the first asylum hotel opened in Knowsley, racially motivated attacks occurred across the town as some residents retaliated against having to host people seeking asylum in their community. It should come as no surprise then that Knowsley is one of the confirmed locations for hotel closures, a decision which is sure to win the vote of some members of the Knowsley electorate.
Crowding asylum seekers into hotels way beyond capacity has avoided the further use of at least 72 hotels, Jenrick explained. However, detaining people seeking asylum in barges and redundant military barracks is alleged by the government to be even more frugal whilst they tackle the immense “backlog” of asylum claims. Commencing this restructuring of asylum provision in the UK, the government has contracted a vessel detention centre called Bibby Stockholm to house people seeking asylum for at least 18 months.
Bibby Stockholm was birthed in Portland, United States, and has 222 rooms measuring an average of 10 ft by 12 ft and is to be used to house up to 500 men seeking asylum whilst their applications are under review by the Home Office. Previous owners of the barge, including Germany and the Netherlands, used it for the same purpose, so any humanitarian denunciation of its use in the UK has been dismissed by the government because they are simply following the lead of “our European neighbours”.
In the UK Bibby Stockholm was reopened in mid-October after the government’s first attempt to use the barge failed in August this year due to Legionella bacteria being detected in the water supply just five days after the detention facility was brought into operation. Selected men awaiting the outcome of their asylum applications are being moved onboard Bibby Stockholm on a “no-choice basis” with only seven days’ notice and threatened with homelessness if they refuse. The government claims that using barges like Bibby Stockholm as asylum accommodation is essential to save taxpayers’ money.
Suspiciously, the Home Office has not disclosed how much of taxpayers’ money is being spent to lease and manage Bibby Stockholm. Press reports have estimated at least £20,000 a day for charter and berthing alone. If this is true, then when Bibby Stockholm is at full capacity, a minimum of £40 a day will be spent on each man on board – an average of £15 less than that which is spent on people housed in hotels. This does not take into consideration the additional costs of 24/7 security, food, healthcare, water, sanitation, etc. provided on board.
Add to the equation the £500 million that the UK is paying France over the next three years to fund a new detention centre and extra security on the UK-France border, it is hard to see how the government will even slightly reduce tax spending on asylum accommodation. However, what using detention centres like Bibby Stockholm is certain to do – and has done – is re-traumatise people who have escaped persecution, conflict, and abuse.
Shocking interviews with the unfortunate 39 men who were forced onto the barge when it first opened reveal how dire the conditions were on board. Whilst the government promises that English classes, Wi-Fi, activities, and a gym will be provided on board, the reality is very different. For example, Wi-Fi speeds reach a meagre speed of 1 GB per second adding to the isolation inflicted upon the men living on the barge.
Most people seeking asylum depend on Wi-Fi to keep in contact with their loved ones. It is also essential to access email updates from the Home Office on their asylum claims. Not turning up for Home Office interviews jeopardises a person’s asylum claim – even if they did not know they had one.
When Bibby Stockholm was in operation in the Netherlands, undercover reports of life on board revealed shockingly high cases of abuse including beatings and sexual exploitation. The undercover security guard wrote that there it wasn’t a case of “if” things would get “completely out of hand” on board but “when”, adding that staff did not see residents as “people with a history, but as numbers.”
Given records of treatment of people seeking asylum in the “extortionate” asylum hotels in the UK, it is likely that patterns of such abuse will be emulated under UK ownership.
Countless accounts of the atrocious conditions in asylum hotels expose the asylum system as profit-generating. The three firms awarded a joint contract of £4 billion in 2019 to run the UK’s asylum seeker accommodation, Mears, Serco and Clearsprings, boast a collective profit of £800 million. In order to derive such profits, the hotel residents are living in squalid conditions.
Investigations have found the hotels to be filthy, crowded, and infested with rats and bed-bugs. One man who has been moved to five different hotels since 2019 explained that nobody comes to clean the rooms and oftentimes there are no toiletries for them to use. Other accounts reveal people being denied essential medical treatment with one person being told by an in-house nurse that “this country does not have any money to pay for [your] medical treatment.”
Another testimony recounts the verbal abuse that asylum seekers endure from hotel staff including being told “you’re a fucking asylum seeker. Go back to your home country, we don’t need you here in the UK.”
Nonetheless, compared to detention centres, asylum hotels do offer some advantages. Whilst the contractors of asylum hotels have failed to meet even the most basic standards for their residents, there are opportunities for people seeking asylum to immerse themselves in the community. This strengthens asylum claims as it demonstrates interest in British culture. It also reduces feelings of isolation and offers a way for people to cope and recover from the traumatic experiences they faced in their country of origin.
Many people seeking asylum are reluctant to attend attend counselling or receive medication for mental health issues due to the stigma around mental health in their countries of origin, making community support networks vital for their well-being. Accessing community food and clothes banks is also essential for people seeking asylum who are expected to survive on a pittance from the Home Office and whose nutritional needs are rarely met by the asylum hotel caterers.
Detention centres offer almost no opportunity for community integration.
For example, people detained on the Bibby Stockholm barge are given marginal leave to leave the barge and are driven by a coach to and from the places they are permitted to visit. Without the opportunity to engage in the local community and show interest in British culture, this compromises asylum claims and gives greater grounds for the Home Office to initiate deportations to countries of origin or to camps in Rwanda.
It also inflicts feelings of isolation upon residents who are also denied reliable internet connection. Enduring such hostility and seclusion drove one person on board Bibby Stockholm to attempt to commit suicide.
Like hotels, detention centres contracted by the government operate as businesses. Every cost is spared to maximise annual revenue to the detriment of the welfare of the people seeking asylum. A policy introduced in 2006 by the erstwhile Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced “paid activities” into immigration removal centres which permits detention centres to pay detainees £1 an hour to clean the centres rather than pay outsourced cleaning companies.
This policy is in effect in the notoriously cruel Clearsprings Napier Barracks and has in part facilitated Clearsprings owner to enjoy an annual income of £25 million.
Claiming that detention centres will reduce tax spending on asylum seekers is deceitful. Instead, they will generate vast wealth for a minority of people and turbo-charge the UK government’s mission to deport almost all refugees to their country of origin or to camps in Rwanda. This comes at the expense of the welfare of asylum seekers and British citizens.
Yet rather than condemn the inhumanity of the government’s plans, the opposition party has complained about its limitations. Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock has criticised the Tories for only planning to close a “paltry” 12% of asylum hotels. This shows that the Labour Party is prepared to rival the Conservative Party in perniciously attacking refugee rights.
Without challenging the UK government and the subcontractors, it must be expected that an already abysmal asylum accommodation will worsen overtime, with taxpayers’ money lining their shareholders’ pockets rather than providing vital support to people exercising their right to seek asylum in the UK.
People who have fled war, persecution, or unlivable conditions deserve safety, especially in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Taxpayers’ money is being used to satiate corporate greed, rather than feeding and housing asylum seekers.