You might be fooled into thinking it’s a new reality TV show and Channel 4 executives are probably kicking themselves for not having the idea first. Yet the transfer of the first asylum seekers onto the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ ship off the coast of Portland this week is not some cruel experiment, it’s the latest twist in the cruel saga of the UK government’s reception of refugees.
Since 1996, under Conservative, Labour and coalition Governments, refugees have literally been sent around the houses – to immigration detention centres, run-down council housing, prisons, army barracks, hostels, hotels and now, a floating container ship, the founder of which – with no hint of irony – has links to the Atlantic slave trade.
There is nothing luxurious about being stuck in a hotel or on a ship. Indeed, the warehousing of asylum seekers this way has drawn strong criticism from policy experts and human rights advocates. For many individuals who have experienced gross violations of their human rights, being trapped in cramped spaces unable to cook or clean for themselves can be re-traumatising. Autonomy and community support are key to the wellbeing and recovery of survivors of war, torture, sexual and gender-based violence and persecution.
For some individuals forced to flee their homeland and experience the horrific ordeal of stepping onto a smuggler’s boat – some with a gun to their head – to cross to Europe, crossing that plank onto a barge will no doubt be terrifying.Dr Jennifer Allsopp - University of Birmingham
For some individuals forced to flee their homeland and experience the horrific ordeal of stepping onto a smuggler’s boat – some with a gun to their head – to cross to Europe, crossing that plank onto a barge will no doubt be terrifying. No refugees were consulted in the devising of this patchwork policy. As a research collaborator from Sudan remarked to me, ‘many of us refugees are the ancestors of slaves, remember?’
Meanwhile, boats to ‘stop the boats’ betrays a crass political logic. While the UK proudly boasts that it used to ‘rule the waves’, we are incapable of patrolling the English Channel and saving lives. Brexit was meant to stop the boats and millions has been invested in surveillance technology. Yet since Brexit, as many researchers predicted, numbers have increased. So too have deaths at sea. Among them, a five-year-old girl and her teenage siblings among 31 people who drowned when their dinghy sank in November 2021. And four men who drowned in December 2022. The pilot of this boat is facing manslaughter claims, but was himself a victim of smugglers and coerced into piloting it. This is a well-documented trend ignored by policy makers who continue to fundamentally misunderstand how smuggling works.
Until there are safe and legal routes, smugglers will continue to find a way to serve desperate people. ‘Think of Moses floating down the river in a basket’ was how a woman described to me how she coped with placing her baby in the hands of a smuggler on the Libyan coast when she was told there was only space for ‘one more’.
It is a myth that creating more hostile conditions for asylum seekers stops people wanting to come to England from war-zones and persecution to reunite with family and pursue work and educational opportunities.
There is nothing new about the current plan, simply the latest battleground in the demonisation of individuals seeking asylum. The name of the boat itself evokes Stockholm syndrome, which is characteristic of many refugees ‘stuck’ in the UK’s incompetent asylum system, where 68% of all people seeking asylum wait longer than six months for a decision.
The fate of Bibby Stockholm affects us all. The experience of other countries that sought to offshore asylum processes in breach of human rights - including the USA, Israel, and Australia - demonstrates that the politics of ‘us and them’ fuels a divisive politics of racism and fear. Moving vulnerable people away from the scrutiny of citizens is a deliberate tactic that allows human rights abuses to go unchecked and crimes be committed in our name, unheard.
How else can we explain the current persecution of human rights lawyers, including those from Care4Calais who successfully prevented the embarkation of 20 asylum seekers this week? Evidence has emerged of the suppression of crucial documents regarding fire risks on the ship. Have we learnt nothing from Grenfell or is this Government so blatantly willing to admit that some individuals’ human rights matter more than others? Will the British public really swallow another lie?
What a ‘bold new policy’ would really look like is heeding evidence-based calls to create more safe and legal routes for refugees to come to the UK and helping them rebuild their lives and communities – a policy worthy of our position as Global Britain. This is not some utopian dream but a concrete call to action.
In the past decade, the global refugee population has more than doubled to over 26 million refugees. Over 80% live in the ‘global south’ in countries including Chad, DRC, Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Lebanon, where 1 in 4 members of population is a refugee. The UK has the capacity and indeed should do more to support refugees. As of November 2022 refugees made up only half a per cent (0.54%) of the UK’s total population, or 1 in 200 people – one person on your street. Germany, France, Spain and Italy and several other European countries already host significantly more per capita.
We must not confuse what is a racist move for a gesture of hospitality. ‘Bibby Stockholm, the Refugee Barge’ is as preposterous a policy solution as it sounds. But it is also a symptom of the demise of human rights. Evidence from this government’s policy approach that seeks to ‘distance’ refugees – whether locking them behind bars in army barracks or sending them to Rwanda is part of their ‘othering’. Refugees have become such a helpful political scapegoat that it appears politicians are scared of what might actually happen if we realize how much we have in common and actually exercise our capacity for kindness and global citizenship as the success of schemes like Refugees at Home shows.