Campaigners fear the Bibby Stockholm asylum seekers’ barge could become a ‘floating Grenfell’ as it starts to fill up over the coming weeks – and their fears seem finally to have been heard after the arrival of 50 migrants was cancelled at the last minute today.
The barge, which was built to house 222 people, is expected to accommodate 500 migrants, plus 40 staff.
Concerned groups, including Stand Up to Racism Dorset and West Dorset MP Chris Loder, say they fear the vessel has not been properly assessed for health and safety – particularly in case of fire.
The evacuation point on the barge has been described as ‘completely inadequate’, with people warning there could be a ‘Hillsborough-type crush’.
The barge had not been cleared by the fire service before the first 50 residents were due to arrive today.
The barge has 222 cabins over three decks, with just two primary exits in case of an emergency.
One person told The Times a fire safety check sparked urgent concerns. Another said Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service was ‘very critical on a number of safety issues’.
Nicola David of One Life to Live has outlined her concerns in a piece entitled Bibby Stockholm – ‘Floating Grenfell’.
She said: “It seems to me that evacuating the barge in the event of a fire or any other emergency, such as a sudden ingress of water, could prove an impossible challenge.
“All of my research, and everyone I’ve spoken to, indicates that the rot found in the hull during its time in dry dock, and the overcrowding on the barge, render the barge entirely unsafe from the point of view of additional weight and inherent fire risks.
“Add to this the extremely narrow corridors, windows that can’t be used for escape, no lifejackets, no fire drills, and a tiny and inescapable evacuation compound surrounded by insurmountable fencing and locked gates.
“In an emergency, the sense of panic could only be heightened by smoke, potentially dim emergency lighting, disorientation, and – for those without sufficient English – an inability to respond to verbal instructions.
“I just don’t see how everyone could get off the barge, or be immediately safe once off the barge, in the event of a serious incident. Bibby Stockholm feels like a disaster waiting to happen.”
Lynne Hubbard, joint chair of Stand Up to Racism Dorset, said: “We welcome refugees. We’re opposed to this prison barge and no one should be moved onto a vessel that’s unsafe. At the same time, we want refugees placed on the Bibby Stockholm to know we stand with them against the government’s hostile policies, which encourage racism and hostility, and that people in Dorset are offering support.”
Stand Up to Racism Dorset, trade unions and faith groups have joined forces to welcome the refugees, with a Welcome message in specially made giant letters and 50 welcome packs to help the refugees acclimatise.
Lynne said: “Many people have come forward with everything from clothing and toiletries to assistance with legal issues, English language, sporting activities and social events.”
She added: “Refugees are here because of crises in which they have been compelled to flee war and persecution. It’s cruel to cram them onto the Bibby Stockholm, which is being converted to house double the number of people for which it was designed. We deplore the decision of Langham Industries, owners of Portland Port, to berth the barge. They are profiting from human tragedy.
“The Government is wasting millions paying Langham Industries and the owners of the barge. It should be investing in an effective system for dealing with asylum applications and tackling the vast backlog of cases.”
MP Chris Loder has told the Home Secretary and Baroness Vere (the Minister responsible for the Marine and Coastguard Agency the barge ‘cannot be deemed safe as no risk assessment can be provided’. He asked that either the Bibby Stockholm is stopped, or that the necessary risk assessments are provided.
He wrote: “For months, I have been asking for sight of the safety risk assessments that should have been done to allow the Bibby Stockholm to be used in Portland Harbour with 500 people on board whilst it was designed for 250.”
Government funding has been agreed to pay for infrastructure enhancements. Dorset Council, which has outlined its opposition to the barge, will receive £3,500 per occupied bed space and a one-off payment of £377,000 to help provide asylum seekers with activities, volunteering opportunities and English-speaking lessons, to be delivered through voluntary and community organisations.
However it is clear the council is simply trying to do the best thing in a very trying situation – the barge appears to have been foisted on the area without consultation.
A council spokesman said: “The decision to site a floating barge in Portland Port for 500 asylum seekers was made by the Home Office and facilitated through a commercial arrangement with Portland Port. Dorset Council was not consulted and had no decision-making powers over this arrangement.
“From the outset, Dorset councillors have been clear about their concerns and opposition to the location of this scheme. The council explored options to pursue legal action to challenge the Home Office’s decision. Following specialist legal advice and the experience of other councils across the country, Dorset Council made the decision not to take legal action as it was unlikely to be successful and would incur high costs to local taxpayers.”