Home Secretary’s plan to house UK asylum seekers on ‘deathtrap’ barge faces legal hurdle

27 August 2023

Suella Braverman’s stalled plan to house asylum seekers on a giant barge is facing a major legal hurdle after firefighters threatened the government with a judicial review, claiming the vessel is a “potential deathtrap”.

The Fire Brigades Union has sent a formal letter to the home secretary this weekend that outlines “serious fire and operational safety concerns” over the 220-bedroom Bibby Stockholm, which is docked in Portland, Dorset.

This month the Home Office was forced to remove the first 39 asylum seekers from the barge only days after they had arrived after potentially deadly legionella bacteria was identified onboard.

The union is demanding a response to their legal letter by Thursday and asks that no asylum seekers should be returned to the barge until its concerns have been addressed.

Ministers intend to house 506 single men on the vessel while they await the outcome of asylum applications. The three-storey barge, chartered by the government for 18 months, arrived at Portland in July.

The Home Office is already facing a legal challenge from the Labour mayor of Portland, Carralyn Parkes, for failing to get the necessary planning permission to use the Dorset dock. She is crowdfunding her challenge, which is being carried out in a personal capacity.

The FBU’s “pre-action protocol” letter claims that the Home Office has failed to arrange fire drills for asylum seekers or adequate risk assessments of the barge, despite more than doubling the number of planned occupants in the midst of threats of attacks from far-right activists.

"The [home secretary] has decided to crowd in an additional 284 people by using single rooms for double occupancy, and creating rooms for four or six persons to sleep in (presumably by converting other spaces).

“The decision of the [home secretary] therefore creates an apparently entirely new, and highly dangerous accommodation arrangement, in which 506 traumatised asylum seekers may face a fire or hazardous materials emergency and need to evacuate the barge as an emergency, while being entirely untrained in fire safety, without even having undertaken fire drills. This situation is inherently unsafe,” the letter says.

The union has also questioned whether there are adequate evacuation points and emergency exits. Reports have claimed there are three emergency exits from the barge.

“The FBU is concerned that adequate provision has not been made for fire evacuation points to allow the asylum-seekers to leave the barge safely, and with sufficient speed. The failure of the [home secretary] to disclose any information to the FBU has only strengthened these concerns,” the letter says. “It remains our professional view that [the barge is] a potential deathtrap and an accident waiting to happen.”

The planned judicial review follows the Home Office’s refusal to meet officials to discuss fire safety concerns over the narrowness of corridors, the number of exits from the barge and adaptations that have been made to the barge to increase its capacity.

On 17 August the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, wrote to the union refusing to hold a meeting about safety on the barge.

Jenrick wrote: “The fire safety standards on the Bibby Stockholm are the same as any other berthed vessel, meeting the industry standard, and statutory inspections including fire safety checks having been successfully completed. Tactical plans, including arrangements for evacuation of residents to assembly areas away from the quayside and outside the gated area, have been developed.

“I note your request for a meeting. However, the Home Office has already engaged with the appropriate bodies, Dorset and Wiltshire fire service in relation to fire safety on the Bibby Stockholm, and the National Fire Chiefs Council in relation to the changes to HMO [multiple occupation] licensing.”

This weekend, Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the FBU, said: “It is disgraceful that the home secretary is not even willing to meet us to discuss these concerns. Throughout this episode, the government has displayed a lack of transparency and a callous disregard for the safety of both firefighters and those who are due to be housed on the barge. This is an industrial issue for the Fire Brigades Union as our members are the ones expected to respond to any fire aboard the Bibby Stockholm. We have therefore decided to move towards a legal challenge on this matter.”

The Bibby Stockholm is one of three barges that the government plans to use to cut the cost of housing asylum seekers and deter dangerous Channel crossings by migrants.

The government has said there are more than 50,000 asylum seekers in hotels across the UK, costing the taxpayer about £6m a day.

As of 24 August, 19,382 people had crossed the Channel in small boats in 2023, while a record 175,000 people were waiting in the UK for a decision on an asylum claim.

Dozens of asylum seekers whom the Home Office has earmarked for the Bibby Stockholm say they are survivors of torture, modern slavery, or have serious health conditions. This makes them unsuitable for living in such a space, said human rights campaigners.

The refugee charity Care4Calais has analysed the cases of 56 people, 48 of whom received notices to move to the Bibby Stockholm and eight of whom had spent time on the barge.

Eighteen of these people reported having survived torture and/or modern slavery, five identified as LGBTQ+ and so feared persecution in their home countries, and eight said they had a disability including sight and hearing loss.

One asylum seeker who spent time on the barge told the Guardian he felt like a lab rat. “The uncertainty of our situation destroys our minds and nerves,” he said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The health and welfare of asylum seekers remains of the utmost priority. The Bibby Stockholm successfully completed all fire and safety checks ahead the first individuals boarding. The vessel completed a statutory inspection and refurbishment before undergoing final preparations to accommodate asylum seekers.”

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