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A Photo of Bibby Stockholm in Portland Port, 2023. Photo is taken from above.

Quasi-detention conditions on the Bibby Stockholm

Dorset Council, responsible for health and safety on board the Bibby Stockholm barge and a member of the multi-agency forum (MAF) for the site, released the latest joint MAF update on 7 November. This revealed that asylum-seekers accommodated there are being confined to the barge as much as possible and should be deterred from getting off the bus provided to take them into local towns. The provision of the bus is a requirement of the contract between CTM and the Home Office. The latest MAF update states:

“There have also been concerns that [the bus] service means that asylum seekers are just being dropped off and left to ‘hang out’ in Weymouth and Portland. This is not happening, nor is it in anyone’s interest for it to happen. There are also be [sic] exercise, recreational and multi-faith facilities on board to minimise the need to leave the site.”

The update was signed off as usual by Paul Beecroft of the communications team at Dorset Council, with the words “Sent on behalf of the MAF group” – indicating the agreement of all MAF members. Besides Dorset Council, these include the Home Office, Portland Port, Dorset NHS, and Dorset Police. MAF meetings are held regularly, and invitees include elected members from the local authorities (town, district and county), MPs, voluntary and community sector partners, and local businesses. 

Nicola David of One Life To Live, which campaigns against large-scale asylum containment sites, commented: 

“Placing asylum-seekers away from communities and attempting to contain them there while restricting their freedom to move about drives a public perception that they have done something very wrong or even criminal, which inevitably and unfairly tarnishes public sentiment towards them. These asylum-seekers have done exactly what we would all do if we faced war, conflict or persecution – flee for our lives. The Bibby Stockholm residents are here legally, and they are not criminals. Therefore, there is no legal or ethical reason to segregate and contain these asylum-seekers or to restrict their freedom. This is quasi-detention, pure and simple.”

What is quasi-detention? 

The Home Office factsheet for the Bibby Stockholm site says it provides “non-detained accommodation”. However, many campaigners, NGOs and immigration lawyers have long maintained that the barge represents quasi-detention. 

According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention (whose members are cross-party MPs and peers), asylum accommodation sites can be ‘accurately described’ as quasi-detention if they include:

  1. Visible security measures.
  2. Shared living quarters.
  3. Reduced levels of privacy.
  4. Isolation from the wider community.

All of these apply at the Bibby Stockholm site:

(1) Visible security measures

ICSA, a private contractor, provides security on board and has assigned a team of “18 guards trained to military standard”. Security cameras are in all communal spaces and along the corridors on each floor. Whenever leaving or returning to the Bibby Stockholm, asylum-seekers undergo airport-style security, including x-rays of their possessions. They cannot walk anywhere other than the small compound at the head of the barge, surrounded by 20-foot-high spiked metal fences and heavy metal gates. They must take a scheduled shuttle bus to get out of the compound.

(2) and (3) Shared living quarters and reduced levels of privacy

Cabins on board the Bibby Stockholm, designed for single occupancy, now have bunk beds, and people must share with strangers. Each person’s living space is smaller than the average car park bay

(4) Isolation from the wider community

To leave the port, asylum-seekers must take a shuttle bus from the compound, across the port and from its gates. The bus is arranged by Portland Port and paid for out of CTM’s £1.6 billion contract with the Home Office. According to page 18 of Annex A of that contract, the Home Office must approve the timetables and destinations for the bus. It is understood that there are two stops on the bus route: Victoria Square on the island of Portland and Commercial Road in Weymouth (on the mainland). 

The MAF update comment about the shuttle bus service is at odds with how buses are generally understood to operate – passengers may dismount at the appointed stops and are free to do as they wish (including ‘hanging around’). Furthermore, ‘exercise and recreational’ facilities onboard are minimal. Many public spaces have been converted to cabins; the gym contains just two treadmills (for an eventual cohort of 425 men); and even the basketball is not freely available but must be signed in and out – apparently because it could be used as a weapon. As a result, the men feel demoralised about this and rarely sign the basketball out. 

Discrimination and segregation

Under Section 13 of the Equality Act 2010, specifically Section 149 (the public sector equality duty), segregation based on race, colour, nationality, ethnic/national origin or religion is unlawfully discriminatory. Nevertheless, residents of the Bibby Stockholm have been sent to live in a contained space away from local amenities and segregated from the local population – which is overwhelmingly White British. Attempting to prevent them from leaving the barge and preferring that they not dismount from the shuttle bus contractually provided for their exclusive use would appear discriminatory.

Only asylum-seekers who have been in the UK since 7 March 2023 and whose asylum claims are already being processed are eligible to be sent to the Bibby Stockholm. A high proportion of the cohort came here by plane and claimed asylum immediately on arrival in the UK, exactly as required. They should not be treated as if they are here illegally or as if they have committed a crime.

The effect on the asylum-seekers

In a Guardian report on 29 October, one barge resident said: 

“We have exactly the feeling of being in prison. It is true that they say that this is not a prison and you can go outside at any time, but you can only go to specific stops at certain times by bus, and this does not give me a good feeling. Even to use the fresh air, you must go through the inspection every time, go to the small yard with high fences, and go through the X-ray machine again. And this is not good for our health. In short, this is a prison whose prisoners are not criminals; they are people who have fled their country just to save their lives and have taken shelter here to live.”

Image: Ashley Smith / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Bibby Stockholm at Portland Port, 2023

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