Asylum seekers on Bibby Stockholm got sick from Legionaire contamination and resulted in suicide attempt

8 September 2023

Thirty-nine asylum seekers who were briefly accommodated on the Home Office’s controversial Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset have said conditions onboard were so bad that one was driven to attempt suicide.

A three-page letter sent to the home secretary, Suella Braverman, also sets out the asylum seekers’ fear and despair at being trapped on the barge and appeals to her to help them in their search for safety and freedom in the UK.

They describe the barge as “an unsafe, frightening and isolated place” but said that as law-abiding people they were fearful of not obeying Home Office instructions. The asylum seekers described the barge as “a place of exile” and said the conditions were “small rooms and a terrifying residence”.

Some of the asylum seekers have told the Guardian they were too traumatised to return to the barge in Portland.

Asked on Friday about the report of an attempted suicide and whether he would order an investigation, Rishi Sunak ignored the question and told reporters “the plan is working” and the “current situation with illegal migration is simply ridiculous”.

His reaction prompted the Lib Dems to brand the prime minister heartless for “brushing off suicide warnings”. Alistair Carmichael, the party’s home affairs spokesman, said it “shows how out of touch he is with people”.

The Home Office has said it still plans to accommodate migrants on the barge despite it having failed a test for legionella. More checks on its water system have been made over the last week, but the results for legionella are not expected back until the end of next week.

According to the letter to Braverman, some people fell ill while on the barge.

The letter says: “Also in a tragic incident one of the asylum seekers attempted suicide but we acted promptly and prevented this unfortunate event. Considering the ongoing difficulties it’s not unexpected that we might face a repeat of such situations in the future.

“Some friends said they even wished they had courage to commit suicide. Our personal belief is that many of these individuals might resort to this foolishness to escape problems in the future.”

They said they were the last people to be informed about the legionella bacteria found on the barge and announced by the Home Office on 11 August.

They said their brief stay on the barge had led to a deterioration in their mental health. “Currently we are staying in an old and abandoned hotel. The sense of isolation and loneliness has taken over us and psychological and emotional pressures have increased significantly.”

The letter to Braverman concludes with a plea to consider their situation as a priority. “We are individuals who are tired of the challenges that have arisen and no longer have the strength to face them.”

An Iranian asylum seeker among the 39 has vowed never to return to the barge. He said many of the other men who spent a few days onboard felt the same way.

“If I had had to stay even one more day on the barge I would have had suicidal thoughts. When I got on to the barge the smell and the stench of seawater was overwhelming,” he said.

“I developed stomach pains and felt dizzy but I was too scared to refuse to get on. Being on the barge made us feel like criminals and second-class citizens.”

He added that nobody from the Home Office properly explained the legionella situation to them. “I had to search on Google to find out what it is. Everyone who was on the barge are now all together in one hotel. A few people are coughing and everybody is afraid. When I was having a shower on the barge the water was burning my eyes.

“Being on that barge will always be a horrific memory in my brain. It’s a completely unfit place. We’re all feeling very upset, but are even more upset that the Home Office want to return us to this horror show.

“I want to ask a question of the people who made the decision to put us on the barge: ‘Would you put a member of your family there even for one day?’ We came to the UK to escape persecution but are facing more persecution here.”

In response to the letter the Home Office said: “We are following all protocol and advice from Dorset council’s environmental health team, UK Health Security Agency and Dorset NHS, who we continue to work closely with.

“Further tests are being conducted and we intend to re-embark asylum seekers only when there is confirmation that the water system meets relevant safety standards. The safety of those onboard remains the priority.”


Monday 7 August: The first group of asylum seekers, all men, are taken to the barge by the Home Office. Some lawyers had successfully challenged their clients being put onboard. New arrivals say they are shocked by the high walls of the barge, which feels like a “floating prison”, and the overwhelming stench of seawater onboard.

Tuesday 8 August : The reality of life onboard the barge starts to be understood by the men. “My feeling about this ship is negative,” says one. “Right now my strongest feeling is of being humiliated and captured. The government takes revenge on every useful brain and heart. What I mean by revenge is that the British government intends to cover up its political and economic failures by using asylum seekers as an excuse.”

Thursday 10 August: All the agencies involved with the barge are aware that tests had confirmed legionella onboard the barge on Monday. Dorset council says its officials informed barge contractors the same day they received the test results and that a meeting was held on Tuesday with officials, including one from the Home Office. The men continue to shower and use water taps onboard, oblivious to any potential health risks.

Friday 11 August: At 1.54pm the men start seeing messages on social media “that there is a disease problem on the barge and we will need to evacuate”. At about 2pm a text is received that the men believe to be from staff onboard the barge telling them not to use the showers for two hours as the shower heads need to be replaced. At 5pm, a copied text is received from the Home Office describing the bacteria found on the barge and informing the men they will be leaving the barge at 7pm by bus.

Saturday 12 August: Relocation to a “disused” hotel. The men begin to process the despair their experience on the barge has caused. Some said previously they had put their trust in the Home Office to provide them with safety after fleeing danger in their home countries but their time on the barge has destroyed that. “All our hopes are gone. We think now the Home Office is not there to help us. It abandons us to uncertain destiny. The barge has sabotaged hope, trust. Morale among us is at zero.”

(Reprinted from The Guardian - Diane Taylor)


In this letter, the 39 people who were on board the Bibby Stockholm barge speak out about their terrifying ordeal as some of them started to fall ill and explain why it's still ongoing.

We [are] a group of 39 asylum seekers from different countries…

We are writing to explain that we were running from persecution, imprisonment and harsh tortures, with hearts full of fears and hope from the countries we were born in, to find safety and freedom in your country and our new refuge.

We have been forced to leave our homes.

We used to live under harsh tortures and danger of persecution in our countries. We have been forced to leave our homes, our jobs and our families, and some of us haven’t seen our families for months.

This abandonment and separation from our family has been bitter and painful, and has been accompanied day by day with anxiety and nervous stresses and only a combination of hope and fear remains within us.

We arrived in Britain with the hope of a better future and, at the very least, some mental peace… For about six months, or for some individuals, a year, we have experienced unemployment without income, the ability to study, or basic rights. We were informed that we would be moved to the Barge “Bibby Stockholm”… an unsafe, frightening, and isolated place.

We felt that the ship was largely a place for troublemakers and lawbreakers—but as individuals who want to adhere to laws and civic values, we accepted this decision.

This decision was very difficult, and we accepted it courageously.

The appointed day arrived, and under the heavy media pressure, we were transferred to our place of exile by Home Office buses. A confined and floating space on the water with strict security regulations. None of us were criminals or had committed any wrongdoings, and we had no access to the city and normal life. Small rooms and a terrifying residence.

When we entered the ship, it felt as if we were entering a world full of new anxieties and fears. Fear of facing the questions of journalists prevented us from leaving the ship, and no one knew what awaited us in terms of our physical and mental health.

During the few days of staying on the ship, we experienced very difficult conditions.

We were informed of concerning incidents: some people on board had fallen ill. Also, in a tragic incident, one of the asylum seekers attempted suicide, but we acted promptly and prevented this unfortunate event.

On the morning of 11 August, news spread about the presence of an epidemic on the ship. Some of us displayed symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease, but no one responded to us, the Home Office did not contact us, and everyone was in shock and fear. In the afternoon of that day, as the last individuals to learn about this problem, we were informed that we would temporarily be moved to a new location.

Currently, we are staying in an old and abandoned hotel. The sense of isolation and loneliness has taken over us, and psychological and emotional pressures have increased. We even lack the desire to live and perform any tasks.

We are individuals who are tired of the challenges that have arisen and no longer have the strength to face them. Even the presence in religious places, which were the only source of solace, warmth, and acquaintance with kind and sympathetic individuals for us, has become confusing due to these numerous relocations.

Now, we seek refuge in you and hope to walk alongside you on this path with your support and unity. We believe that with our joint effort, we can achieve the peaceful and secure life that we aspire to.

Respectfully and hopefully,

The 39 refugees who were placed on the Bibby Stockholm.

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