First asylum seekers to move on to UK’s migrant barge despite fire warnings

‘It’s the getting down off it that’s the issue - everybody panics when there’s a fire,’ local councillor warns

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Monday 31 July 2023 17:09 BST
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Inside the Bibby Stockholm asylum barge

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The Home Office is to move asylum seekers onto the Bibby Stockholm barge, despite concerns about fire safety.

The first group of around 40 people are expected to arrive over the coming days, but ministers claim more than 500 will eventually be housed on the vessel moored in Dorset.

The Independent understands authorities have issued formal warnings about inadequate fire evacuation protocols for the vessel, which contains 222 cabins lining narrow corridors over three decks.

A local councillor, who did not want to be named, said the Home Office’s decision to more than double the Bibby Stockholm’s capacity by cramming bunk beds into every room had increased the risk.

“It’s the getting down off it that’s the issue,” said the councillor, who visited the vessel last week. “Everybody panics when there’s a fire and the corridors are so small.

“Every scenario has been put in place for a fire but you don’t add in the human element of the panic.

“You’re not going to knock on each cabin saying ‘oh there’s a fire on deck 3’, everyone wants to get off as quickly as possible.”

Officials say the Bibby Stockholm has three fire exits, but when The Independent visited with other media on 21 July only two were in operation.

They were both on the same side of the barge, and one was closed off for safety reasons because the gangway was deemed too steep for use.

The quayside adjourning the barge is closed off at one end, with 15ft metal fences and a locked gate separating it from the rest of the port - sparking concerns about potential crushes among people fleeing any danger.

Richard Drax, the Conservative MP for South Dorset, said the Home Office and vessel operators must “ensure all safety requirements are met”.

There are concerns about evacuations in the extent of a fire
There are concerns about evacuations in the extent of a fire (PA)

“I understand the first, small, tranche of migrants is expected this week, but questions still remain as to whether the barge, originally designed for about 220, can take 500 people and still meet the safety measures being demanded,” he added.

“If it cannot, then the number of migrants must be reduced to a level advised by those assessing the fire risk.”

Mr Drax said that he and West Dorset Chris Loder had received no response to a letter sent to the home secretary on 17 July, where they asked for an urgent safety assessment of the vessel.

Tim Naor Hilton, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “All people in the UK have the right to live in housing that is not dangerous or harms their health.

“Segregating, squeezing and detaining people on a prison barge will put people’s lives at risk, cause horrendous health issues and make existing problems worse, just like we’ve seen in hotels. “

Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service said it had advised on a fire risk assessment drawn up by the vessel operators, Landry & Kling, who have been subcontracted by an Australian travel firm as part of a larger £1.6bn Home Office contract.

The authority’s fire safety manager, Graham Kewley, said it did not have the power to approve the Bibby Stockholm for habitation but “will exercise our enforcement powers, either formal or informal, to address any significant areas of non-compliance where necessary”.

He added: “Where any aspect falls within the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, we will be undertaking appropriate audits to confirm that adequate general fire precautions are in place.

The official brochure for the Bibby Stockholm shows 222 single bedrooms, but the Home Office has used bunk beds to push its capacity to 506
The official brochure for the Bibby Stockholm shows 222 single bedrooms, but the Home Office has used bunk beds to push its capacity to 506 (Bibby Marine)

“We have provided advice and comment in relation to fire safety arrangements to both the Home Office and the vessels operators during our familiarisation and pre-occupation visits.”

The Health and Safety Executive said it had issued separate advice over issues on the quayside surrounding the barge and its concerns had been addressed.

“Our inspectors conducted a planned visit of Portland Port last week alongside Dorset Council’s Environmental Health Team,” a spokesperson added.

“We provided advice on construction safety, which has since been acted upon.”

The Independent understands that the issues raised by authorities mainly concern scenarios where the barge is at a higher capacity than it will be when an initial group of asylum seekers arrives this week.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “The Bibby Stockholm is currently undergoing final preparations, including fire safety checks - that's happening this week - to ensure that it complies with all the appropriate regulations.

“There's been refurbishment that's been ongoing to ensure rooms comply with marine industry safety regulations.”

In normal circumstances one can leave the “secure compound” surrounding the vessel without waiting for a shuttle bus to take them to the port exit, which officials say is needed for safety reasons.

A view of inside one of the bedrooms onboard the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge at Portland Port in Dorset
A view of inside one of the bedrooms onboard the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge at Portland Port in Dorset (PA)

Once at the main gates, anyone is free to leave but the Home Office is trying to incentivise asylum seekers to make use of planned activities and hourly buses into the nearby resort town of Weymouth.

Following an outbreak of diphtheria at the Manston detention centre, and scabies and tuberculosis cases at the Wethersfield military base, a nurse will be on site five days a week and able to refer patients to a GP if necessary.

The Bibby Stockholm saw at least one person die, and reports of rape and abuse on board, when it was used by the Dutch government to detain refugees in the 2000s.

It was later refurbished and used for commercial contracts to house workers, but at a maximum capacity of 222 people.

Only single adult men previously in hotels will be housed on the barge, following “suitability” assessments and security checks, the Home Office said.

The government insists the barge will be cheaper than hotels, where around 50,000 asylum seekers are currently housed at a cost of £6m a day but have refused to estimate the cost of each place.

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