Bibby Stockholm: Most asylum seekers housed on ‘deterrent’ barge are not small boat migrants

Labour says it’s ‘frankly laughable’ to claim barge will reduce small boats when most residents flew to UK

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Friday 11 August 2023 10:40 BST
Asylum seeker films inside Bibby Stockholm barge after moving in

Most of the asylum seekers so far housed on the government’s controversial barge are not small boat migrants and arrived in the UK legally, The Independent can reveal.

Ministers have claimed the Bibby Stockholm and use of military bases as accommodation would “deter” English Channel crossings, but the majority of those so far selected for the vessel arrived by plane.

After speaking to charities and legal firms working with more than 30 asylum seekers ordered to move onto the barge by the Home Office, The Independent has been told of only two who arrived by small boat.

All others used regular passenger planes to reach the UK, with some claiming asylum at the airport shortly after landing - meaning they did not enter the country illegally.

A former Conservative minister called the situation “extraordinary”, adding: “The policy of reducing hotels is not working because they’ve got more people coming and they’re still using them.

“Even though they’ve got the barge and have been talking about tents and military bases and the rest of it nothing has changed. People are still coming so there’s no deterrent factor.”

The vast majority of people who have boarded the Bibby Stockholm, and those who successfully challenged their transfer notices through lawyers, are understood to have flown into the UK legally.

“Many of us entered Britain nine to 11 months ago, by airplane,” an Afghan asylum seeker told the BBC. “Some of us applied for asylum at the airport. We did not come by boat.”

An Iranian man now living on the barge toldThe Sun he had flown into Britain six months ago, and that others on board were mainly from his country and Afghanistan. Both nationalities have very high asylum grant rates.

Home Office guidance states that people can be accommodated on the Bibby Stockholm for a maximum of nine months, meaning that anyone whose claim is not granted in that time will have to be sent back to hotels or other government accommodation.

Inside the Bibby Stockholm asylum barge

Labour said the barge had become a “symbol of Tory incompetence”, while other opposition MPs accused the government of using “sound bites” that do not match reality.

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said: “This latest revelation that the majority of people staying on board the Bibby Stockholm arrived in the UK on a flight just proves it was never going to be the answer to the asylum backlog chaos, and the fact that government ministers have been touting it as such is frankly laughable.”

Mr Kinnock said the asylum system was “going from bad to worse”, as more boats arriving on Thursday pushed the number of crossings since 2018 past 100,000.

Alison Thewliss, the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, said the government should be working to properly process the asylum backlog rather than pursuing accommodation with “major safety issues”.

“The number of people on the Bibby Stockholm who arrived by plane shows that for the UK government, ‘Stop the Boats’ is more of a soundbite than a solution,” she told The Independent.

“It is high time that this government dropped the rhetoric and focused on protecting the vulnerable people we have a duty to protect.”

The Liberal Democrats accused the government of “headline-chasing” to distract from figures showing rising Channel crossings and asylum claims, as it remains unable to deport anyone to Rwanda.

The party’s home affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said: “Once again, the reality of the situation is simply not reflected in the Home Office's sound bite policies.

In April, shortly after the Bibby Stockholm’s use as asylum accommodation was announced, immigration minister Robert Jenrick claimed it would “deter” small boat crossings.

“We must suffuse the entire system with deterrents, and that includes our national approach to how we accommodate illegal migrants,” he told parliament.

“In the short term, that means switching to cheaper and more appropriate forms of accommodation, such as disused military sites and vessels.”

In recent weeks, several ministers refuting concerns about the safety and suitability of the Bibby Stockholm have said “illegal migrants” should not be given a choice of accommodation.

After being forced to reverse transfer notices for at least 20 asylum seekers, which had been issued in violation of official guidance, the Home Office issued “threatening” letters telling selected people to move onto the barge or face having government housing withdrawn.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick claimed on Wednesday that a “significant” number of asylum seekers who initially objected had since changed their minds and moved on board, but the Home Office has refused to give numbers.

Senior Tories have defended Conservative Party deputy chair Lee Anderson’s statement that asylum seekers who resist moving onto the barge should “f*** off back to France”, although many did not travel fromt here.

“They're illegal migrants - they're not genuine asylum seekers,” he claimed on Thursday.

Official figures show that 92 per cent of small boat migrants arriving since 2018 have claimed asylum, and most of the cases decided were granted.

The Home Office said it does not differentiate between methods of entry when allocating asylum accommodation, and that the primary aim of the Bibby Stockholm was to reduce spending on hotels.

A spokesperson added: “The first asylum seekers are now being housed on the vessel in Portland after it successfully completed all health, fire and safety checks. The number of people on board will increase gradually with more arrivals later this week and in the coming months, as part of a carefully structured phased approach.”

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