Dear gentle reader, my definition of a barge is a long flat-bottomed boat for carrying freight on canals and rivers, either under its own power or towed by another. It is not for people to live on. Since the beginning of 2023, the Refugee Council—as well as NGOs and support groups—has been campaigning against the UK government’s decision to house persons seeking asylum in UK on the Bibby Stockholm barge. People who have fled discrimination, wars and persecution are being housed inhumanely on a floating prison, separated from other people. Being confined in a small space has huge impacts on mental health. What a welcome to Britain!
Five hundred persons seeking asylum in the UK will ultimately be moved to an engineless accommodation vessel. This barge was converted into an accommodation vessel in 1992. From 1994 to 1998 it was used by Germany to house the homeless and some persons seeking asylum. In 2005, it was moved to Rotterdam in the Netherlands where it was used to house persons seeking asylum. The Home Office has been delayed in preparing this barge to meet living standards, as it was not built for so many people to live on. Its main purpose has always been to contain—and it has been used over the decades to do just that. A plethora of health and safety concerns were reported to the Home Office and the UK media before the first group of persons seeking asylum boarded on the 7th August. Thirty-nine men boarded, before having to be removed from the barge when Legionella bacteria was found in the water. Health and safety standards had not been met.
As I know from my own experience battling shock, fear, isolation and loneliness, if you meet someone who has been confined they may become what some would call a loner. We become “loners” not because we enjoy solitude, but because we have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint us. This is what will happen to persons seeking asylum in the UK contained on that barge. I’ve been a bit lost since seeing that barge dock into Portland, Dorset, knowing the history that comes with it. I say to myself: “why do people have to be this inhumane?” What’s the point of it all? There are millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others for safety, yet remaining isolated. Was the earth created just to nourish human loneliness? At times, dear reader, I find myself believing we’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.
So where does this leave me, and those persons seeking asylum in the UK, who will be contained on that barge? It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. My hope remains not just for me, you and the 500 persons seeking asylum who might end up on that barge. It remains for everyone in the known world. I will end in saying this to you: I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge, that myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts, that hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief and that love is stronger than death.