Bibby Stockholm: Workers ‘driven stir-crazy’ on cramped barge ‘not designed for living on’

Exclusive: Former gas worker says barge was used only to ‘eat and sleep’

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Wednesday 09 August 2023 16:48 BST
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Asylum seeker films inside Bibby Stockholm barge after moving in

A worker who stayed on the Bibby Stockholm has said the barge is “not designed for living on”, describing “cramped conditions” where people would go “stir-crazy”.

Ruairi Kelly lived on the vessel for several months in 2013, when it was berthed in the Shetlands for a gas pipeline project.

He told The Independent it was “not luxurious” and felt more like a cross-Channel ferry than living quarters. The government is set to cram in 500 asylum seekers onto the barge – two to a room in bunks and more than double its previous capacity.

Mr Kelly, who was working on the Laggan-Tormore gas plant project as a health and safety adviser, said there were “never two people in a room at one time” because they were so small.

He recalled “cramped conditions” and said he and his colleagues could spend only three weeks at a time on board due to the squeezed living quarters.

Ruairi Kelly stayed on the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ when it was used for gas plant workers in Sheltand in 2013
Ruairi Kelly stayed on the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ when it was used for gas plant workers in Sheltand in 2013 (Supplied)

“People would go stir-crazy on it,” Mr Kelly added. “It feels very much like being on a boat, it’s very narrow corridors, low ceilings, you have to step over raised doorframes to get into the rooms, it’s pretty much the same as being on a ferry.

“I don’t envy anybody that’s getting put onto it, having to live in those conditions.

“I had my own room - they're quite small cabins rather than rooms really. I think they're less than 12ft by 12ft. You had your bed, a wee wardrobe and then there was an ensuite bathroom in them, which was tiny.”

The Home Office has jammed bunk beds into each of the Bibby Stockholm’s 222 cabins to increase the capacity to around 500, while also reducing the amount of living space for asylum seekers by closing off a bar and other areas for crew use only.

Mr Kelly said he and the other workers housed there in 2013 were away working for most of the day and only boarded to “eat and sleep”.

Inside the Bibby Stockholm asylum barge

“It was one person to a cabin and we were only on it about 10 hours a day,” he added. “There wasn’t huge amounts, or even really small amounts of living space. I would definitely not say that it's designed for living on, it's fine as accommodation if you're away for most of the time working and it's just somewhere to put your head down.”

Mr Kelly and the other workers on the Laggan-Tormore were only housed on the barge in three-week stints, and then allowed a full week off to return home and to their families.

The former engineer, who is now a Scottish National Party councillor in Glasgow, said living there indefinitely was a “very different prospect”.

“We did 21 days on and seven days off, and whenever you were there you were away for 14 hours or more in the day,” he added.

“We were just there to work. You knew you were going home to your friends or family at the end of your three weeks and you were getting relatively well paid for it. So it's very different from what people will be experiencing if you're there indefinitely without the same freedom, and no ability to work or earn any money.”

The bedrooms onboard the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ at Portland Port were previously single occupancy
The bedrooms onboard the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ at Portland Port were previously single occupancy (PA)

Mr Kelly fears that the Home Office’s plans to cram 500 asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm is a “recipe for disaster”, and believes the conditions on board will “hugely exacerbate” any mental or physical health issues.

He said there was “no way” that number of people could fit in the canteen, or use the gym, television and computer rooms provided without “some sort of shifts or rotations”.

The Home Office has already been forced to reverse dozens of transfer notices for asylum seekers who have refused to go on board and have submitted legal letters opposing the move.

The government has also violated its own guidance by attempting to put people with disabilities and other serious medical conditions on the Bibby Stockholm, with the mistakes thought to have been caused by insufficient screening.

Several other people who refused to travel to the vessel on Monday, have been sent a letter threatening them with eviction and potential homelessness if they fail to accept the move.

It said that if they did not move on Tuesday, “arrangements for ceasing the support that you are receiving from the Home Office may commence”.

Only 15 people moved on board on Monday following a wave of legal letters and refusals
Only 15 people moved on board on Monday following a wave of legal letters and refusals (AFP/Getty)

The Care4Calais charity said anyone receiving a transfer notice for the Bibby Stockholm “has the right to challenge it” and accused the government of targeting people who had been unable to secure legal representation.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said a “significant” number of asylum seekers who had initially objected have since changed their minds on Wednesday.

“A significant number moved yesterday, I suspect more will move in the coming days,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“The way that the asylum support system operates is that if someone claims to be destitute – ie they have no way of supporting themselves – there’s a legal obligation on the government to step in and provide them with accommodation and meet their basic needs, but we do that by and large on a no-choice basis, not an a la carte menu where you can choose which hotel you want or which location.”

If it reaches its full capacity, the Bibby Stockholm will house under 1 per cent of the over 50,000 asylum seekers currently being accommodated in hotels at a cost of over £6m a day.

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