The ‘No floating prisons’ campaign is active to counter it

By Francesca Reppucci

The UK government’s new plan to accommodate 500 asylum seekers in a barge in Portland’s port violates freedom of movement and the right to privacy.

On 5 April 2023, the British Home Office announced a plan to house asylum seekers on a barge (the Bibby Stockholm) in the port of the island of Portland, in Dorset (southwest England). According to the statement, the decision was taken “(…) to reduce the unsustainable pressure on the UK’s asylum system and cut the cost to the taxpayer caused by the significant increase in Channel crossings” 1.

As stated by Home Office, the Bibby Stockholm will become operational in July for an initial period of 18 months and will accommodate up to 500 male asylum seekers, aged between 18 and 65. The barge will lie in a so-called ‘protected’ area, from where it will only be possible to leave and access the city centre through a dedicated bus service. On board, there will be a laundry service, catering for meals, and common areas. Although guests will be allowed to disembark and access land, there are currently no plans to provide any services related to reception outside the port 2.

The Home Office is clearly aiming at limiting the freedom of movement of migrants to the lowest terms. According to The Independent, the living space each person will have on the barge will be ‘the size of a parking space’, namely a mere 15 square metres.

A plan of the barge. Source: Bibby Marine website

The Conservative Party member Richard Drax defined it a ‘quasi-prison’, where people will be left ‘sitting twiddling their thumbs’.

According to James Wilson, director of Detention Action (a charity providing support inside detention centres for illegal immigrants), it ‘(…) a cramped, prison-like barge’ 3.
As a matter of fact, the Home Office itself, in several official statements, explicitly declares its intention to ‘minimise the impact on local communities’, as stated in the press release of 5 April 2023, and reiterated on several occasions in the Asylum accommodation factsheet available on its official website.

Among the civil society, there are who have started actions against the umpteenth scenario of an increasingly restrictive reception system.

In an interview for Melting PotTigs Louis-Puttick, founder of the NGO Reclaimthesea, speaks. Providing swimming and surfing lessons to migrants, it aims to enhance their quality of life and help them transform the sea from a traumatic event to a space of freedom and healing. In May, Reclaimthesea drafted an open letter to Suella Braverman, the UK Home Secretary, demanding the project’s abandoning, signed by 706 individuals and 91 organisations and collectives, including Médecins Sans Frontières UK and Sea-Watch. On 21 May, together with the NGO Europe Must Act, Reclaimthesea led a protest in front of the Home Office and launched the ‘No floating prisons‘ campaign, which includes a series of protests, events and crowdfunding to start legal action against the plan.

Tigs says «We called the campaign “No floating prisons” because of the general approach that reflects the character of these places. The current process of refurbishing the barge is undergoing aims at increasing the barge’s capacity to 220 to 500 people, which will obviously infringe on people’s privacy. The plan is that when asylum seekers arrive in the UK, they will get housed directly in these barges, not even docked to the land. In addition, Portland is a closed, gated port, and no one can freely enter and exit». «For example, if an incident occurs, authorities may just close the gates and deny people to leave. Because it’s a private port, we have no control over their decisions, neither we can be certain they will provide explanations».

About the risks of floating prisons, Tigs says «For most people that have arrived in the UK, it is very likely that they did a sea crossing at some point of their trip. Whether Turkey to Greece, Libya to Italy or the Channel itself. So, most of them have experienced some level of trauma at the sea. Therefore, suggesting putting people back in a ship, although all their associations with sea and water are just negative, is literally holding them in the actual, physical, location of the trauma. Also, around 25% of men and only 18% of women from East African countries (which are the countries which many refugees in the UK come from), can swim. If for any reason, they end up in the water, very likely they die. There are also high rates of drowning because of cold water’s temperature. And then again, you know, a lot of people that are coming to the UK to seek safety, have experienced incarceration in their home countries for anything from being LGBTQ to being a political prisoner. And they’re coming here and getting put once again in a prison-like facility».

The concern of the floating prisons is also linked to the UK-Rwanda agreement, to permanently relocate asylum seekers who have arrived illegally in the UK to Rwanda, so that their asylum claim can be processed there 4. «This is basically a waiting room to be sent to Rwanda, which is not a safe country for many asylum seekers. There’s already a lot of refugees from neighbouring countries and again, it’s just a colonial outsourcing of UK responsibilities to uphold asylum rights». «A lot of them will know they’re on the boat and they’re just waiting. And that is just so bad for mental health and I’m worried people will commit suicide on the boat because they know, they’re going to wonder».

Lastly, according to Tigs «Thislink up with what is happening across Europe, it feels like what they’re doing in the UK, they almost like copied somehow from Greece and from Italy when they kept people on ships during the pandemics. When I was on a mission rescue mission with Sea-Watch, in December 2021, we came into the port in Trapani, and we had like 200 people on board and this big ship was waiting to transfer people from our boat. People didn’t want to go in, they wanted to disembark on the land. There’s just so much of a rejection of the idea of being on a ship. They were afraid of what they would have found, to remain in the water».

In conclusion, although this is the first time that the UK has decided to house people in a barge, keeping migrants as segregated as possible from the local population, reducing their living space to a minimum, minimising reception costs and externalising borders is nothing new. On the contrary, it is just yet another sad step towards a well-established tendency for European states to wash their hands of the duty to save lives and respect asylum seekers rights.

You can donate to support the campaign against floating prisons and take legal action against the British state at the link below.

  1. Home Office UK. (2023, April 5). Vessel to accommodate migrants [Press release]
  2. Home Office. (2023, June 16). Asylum accommodation factsheets
  3. Dearden, L. (2023a, April 8). Asylum seekers to have less space than a car parking bay on ‘quasi-prison’ barge. The Independent
  4. Asylum accommodation factsheets Home Office (2022, April 14). Factsheet: Migration and Economic Development Partnership.

The original article can be found here