Its 2023, right? 20 years ago, we always pictured the future with everything floating – cars, shops and even houses. More recently, we seem to have found a compromise in that we have accepted homes floating over water. We see these floating houses and villas in places such as the Maldives and the Seychelles and admittedly, we see them as somewhat of a luxury.
Well, it’s called Bibby Stockholm and it’s a hoot (although not quite in a Maldives or Seychelles type of way). Anyways, let me burst your bubble by telling you that it’s been made to house asylum seekers. Now, over the past week, we’ve seen journalists’ accounts of their visits of Bibby Stockholm, and I think its safe to say, none of it is surprising. The intention of this piece is not to attempt a comparison of Bibby Stockholm and a villa in Maldives (for that would be futile), but it’s to consider the legality of such a place.
However, before we get into it, let’s establish what Bibby Stockholm actually is.
To be pedantic, let’s put it this way: if the Home Office were to move into the hotel business, I would rate them a solid 1* (putting my bias aside, of course). Although, I have to note that a bit of research on Bibby Stockholm showed that the company that creates these residences labels it as ‘luxury on board’, although I’m not entirely sure.
Now, and rather unsurprisingly, the UK government is not a trendsetter by any means. Bibby Stockholm was first used to house asylum seekers in Hamburg, Germany back in the late 90s. After that, the Dutch adopted it and made us of it in the same way in the early 2000s. So, arguably the UK is a tad behind (with reason, of course).
Bibby Stockholm is essentially a barge which sits off the Southern coast of England. It has the capacity to house 500 people, although it has been made clear that this one will be for men only. Initially, it was intended to house around 250 but, like all parents who need to fit multiple children into a room will contend, the addition of bunk beds makes life significantly easier.
Images of the barge show a tv room, a gym, and canteen, I’m assuming an attempt to pacify activist organisations countering its implementation. But admittedly, anyone who looks at the images can accept how bleak it looks – regardless of your opinions of whether or not asylum seekers should be housed in it. I mean, you certainly wouldn’t want to stay there.
But like I said, the point isn’t for me to continue criticising what the Home Office deems as acceptable (although I could if I wanted to). It is, however, important to discuss the legality of these places. Due to the limited scope of this piece, the focus will predominantly be on Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights
As most of my colleagues in the industry will agree, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights is both highly regarded and well upkept. This article states that every individual has the right to enjoy life without torture or degrading or inhumane treatment. Obviously, the Home Office has repeatedly swatted every allegation of a possible breach of this article like that annoying fly that won’t leave you alone. But Bibby Stockholm off the coast of Dorset may be the first of its type here in the UK, but it isn’t elsewhere. And previous experiences with the barge suggest that it is, in fact, a breach of this article.
For instance, in the 2000s, the Dutch government made use of Bibby Stockholm in the same way as the UK intends to – to house detained asylum seekers. Over the course of the use there, at least one person was reported to have died, and there were multiple reports of rape and other types of abuse taking place there. In addition to this, there was significant criticism regarding the conditions there. In fact, an Amnesty International report quoted the experiences of one of the asylum seekers who had been detained on the Dutch version of Bibby Stockholm:
‘There is only little daylight in the cells … in the morning the guards would open the cell with their nose covered to protect themselves against the stench’
‘The conditions force you into submission; they kill you psychologically’.
If conditions were this poor when the Dutch government had opted for the barge, it is tough to see how things are likely to be any different. Although the UK Home Office has promised 24/7 security, it would still be irresponsible to act as though the unfortunate acts which took place in the Dutch Bibby Stockholm will not be repeated on our doorstep.
Given that the expectation of these acts is reasonable, assuming a breach of asylum seekers’ Article 3 rights is equally reasonable. In the same breath Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also applies. As agreed on by the UK, this article emphasises that every person who has their liberty deprived shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of a human person.
Of course, (and please do not mistake this as my defending the Home Office), the implementation of Bibby Stockholm off the UK coast merely engages these rights. It won’t be until the inevitable and shocking news stories which come out in a year’s time which will prove that the Home Office has, in fact, breached these rights.
Like many of the Home Office’s plans (which they take SO much pride in), this is shocking. Home Office representatives repeatedly contend that Bibby Stockholm does not even engage any international law mechanisms that the UK is party to. But even the smallest amount of research on the topic will prove otherwise.
Unfortunately, this means that we will just have to wait for difficult incidents to take place and then maybe the voices of those objecting will be heard. The worst bit of all of this remains that those seeking a better life for themselves or those escaping fear and persecution will have to be subjected to such poor conditions. Certainly makes us question the power of international law.