UK’s Innovative Asylum Barge: Outlier or Cutting Edge?

The UK government has started moving asylum seekers on a barge, amid legal challenges and protests from human rights groups. The Bibby Stockholm, moored off the south coast of England, is expected to hold more than 500 men aged between 18 and 65 pending the verdict of asylum applications.

Originally built to accommodate just 220 residents, the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) describes Bibby Stockholm as a “potential death trap” – for residents on board and firefighters.Narrow, overcrowded corridors and limited access to exits have led to demands from the FBU, representing the vast majority of firefighters across the UK, to change the Conservative government’s plans.

Opposition also comes from lawyers and NGOs.

Located behind imposing barbed wire fences with 24-hour security, asylum seekers aboard the Bibby Stockholm will not be allowed to exit and enter the residence as they please.

“We are particularly concerned that people forced to stay on the barge will not be able to move freely,” says campaign and advocacy group Migrants Organize. “Indeed [residents] will be detained. »

Doubling the capacity of the residence, each cabin on Bibby Stockholm has been equipped with a bunk bed. Refugee charity Care4Calais, which provides access to legal assistance to those forcibly displaced to the barge, highlights the inhumane conditions the residents will be placed in.

“Among our clients are people with disabilities, who have survived torture and modern slavery and who have had traumatic experiences at sea,” explains Steve Smith, CEO of Care4Calais. “Housing a human being in a ‘quasi-floating prison’ is inhumane. Trying to do that to this group of people is incredibly cruel.

Strong opposition to government policy had been voiced before the discovery of Legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease, in the onboard water supply, leading to the temporary disembarkation of the first cohort of residents. Health and safety concerns have since escalated.

Leading human rights organization Amnesty International has condemned the policy of housing asylum seekers in confined spaces.

“The Bibby Stockholm is an utterly shameful way to house people who have fled terror, conflict and persecution,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty International UK. “Government should fairly and efficiently determine people’s claims instead of perpetuating costly backlogs, human misery and organized criminal exploitation. »

Meanwhile, the UK asylum backlog is at an all-time high, with more than 160,000 people awaiting a verdict by the end of 2022 – a number matched in Europe only by Germany, which received almost four times more applications in 2021 than Great Britain.

Waiting times in the UK are more than double those in European countries such as France, Belgium and Germany, leaving applicants in precarious situations for up to two years and often without access to public services.

The ECHR, the United Kingdom and Rwanda

In June 2022, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) intervened to prevent the UK government’s program from flying refugees and migrants to Rwanda while applications are being processed. Since then, leaders and politicians in successive Conservative governments have openly discussed the possibility of Britain leaving the ECHR.

As part of the “Stop the Boats” initiative (the populist slogan, adopted by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government, referring to refugees and migrants crossing the English Channel), Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said that the government would do “whatever is necessary”. to curb arrivals when asked to withdraw the UK from the ECHR.

Current Home Secretary Suella Braveman has also expressed her view that it would be in the UK’s interest to deviate from the Europe-wide convention.

Meanwhile, this month, Conservative Party Vice-Chairman MP Lee Anderson said asylum seekers who did not like the conditions on the barge could ‘return to France’ – without a reprimand from Downing Street.

The ECHR falls within the competence of the Council of Europe, not the European Union, which means that the UK’s participation continues, for now, despite Brexit.

However, if the UK were to withdraw from the ECHR, legal issues would arise over the Good Friday Agreement with Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, although not dependent on the UK joining the ECHR, mandates a continued commitment to human rights .

UK – outlier or vanguard for the EU?

The EU agreed to a reform of the asylum system in June, allowing member states to reject refugees and migrants in exchange for a small fee (€20,000 per person) and to independently determine which countries are considered as “safe” – an essential condition for establishing the right of non-refoulement and agreements with third countries.

This could pave the way for EU member states to strike deals with third countries, similar in scope to the UK’s deal with Rwanda.

EU member state Denmark has passed legislation allowing asylum seekers to be relocated to third countries outside the EU while their claims are being processed, openly discussing the prospect of a deal with Rwanda.

Italian, Hungarian and Polish governments that promote anti-migration programs are also likely to see this as an opportunity. Meanwhile, support for far-right nationalist governments is growing in many European countries – with the Alternative for Germany (AfD) winning nearly one in five votes, according to recent polls.

The EU asylum reform also includes a new procedure to screen applicants through primary assessments at the European border.

Those being assessed, including families and children, will be held in “prison-like centers on the edge of Europe”, says Stephanie Pope, Oxfam’s migration expert for the EU.

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Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.