Protestors claim victory with Home Office reprieve to sending 22 asylum seekers living in Margate to Bibby Stockholm barge

Some of the protestors against the removal of 22 men from a Cliftonville hotel to the Bibby Stockholm barge Photo Frank Leppard

Following a protest today (April 24) attended by more than 100 Margate residents, the Home Office has temporarily rescinded the order to take 22 asylum seekers from a Cliftonville hotel to the Bibby Stockholm barge.

The men, the majority from Afghanistan, have been in Margate for seven months, sleeping two strangers to a room and have had numerous issues with the hotel food and ceilings falling down on them.

But, protestors say that despite living in a poorly kept hotel run by the Home Office, the men have found a sense of stability in Margate and have become a part of the community.

Photo Frank Leppard

They have been volunteering with a number of local charities including A Perfect Place to Grow, Ark Cliftonville Cultural Space, Margate Mushrooms, Kent Coast Volunteering, 101 Social, the Windmill Community Gardens, and engaged with Turner Contemporary.

Margate residents, led by Mayor Rob Yates, came together to support the men and prevent the move to the Bibby barge in Dorset.

The argument has been going on for a number of weeks including letters to local MPs and pleadings to the Home Office, all of which had previously failed.

Photo Frank Leppard

When the representations to the Home Office fell down, Margate Mayor Cllr Yates decided direct action was the only route left and took it upon himself to set up an online community platform under the banner of Block the Barge.

This welcomed anyone who wished to join the non-violent protest. From 11pm last night (Tuesday 23rd April) there has been a constant vigil in a nearby café with people ready to step in should the vehicles of removal arrive.

The Block the Barge group has been ready to sound the alarm and disrupt the situation in a bid to protect the hotel residents.

Photo Frank Leppard

Home Affairs Committee investigation

In February of this year a Home Affairs Committee carried out an investigation into the Bibby Stockholm Barge.

Chair of the committee, Dame Diana Johnson, said MPs had been “disheartened to see some of the living conditions on the Bibby Stockholm”, saying they found “many individuals having to share small, cramped cabins (originally designed for one person), often with people (up to six) they do not know (some of whom spoke a different language to them).”

They said: “We are concerned that housing asylum claimants on Bibby Stockholm is leaving them in a claustrophobic environment, isolated from external support including legal advice, and without important links to community, faith or family potentially for months on end.”

Campaigners say if the 22 Margate resident refugees are forced to move to the Bibby Stockholm it could have severe detrimental effects to their mental and physical health as well as put them through another experience of displacement.

Anistasia, Lee and Harry Photo Parri Thomas (with thanks to Margate Mercury)

Some of the young men have been volunteering at A Perfect Place To Grow which is a training café and  kitchen aimed at giving 18-24 year olds a path into employment.

The business, within Tracey Emin’s TKE Studio site in Victoria Road, is headed up by Lee Coad, of seafood restaurants Angela’s and Dory’s, with Harry Ryder from Bottega Caruso and Thanet youth worker Anistasia James.

Prior to learning of the Home Office reprieve -albeit temporary – Lee said the men are now part of the Margate community and he was angry at the way they were being treated.

He said: “They have been volunteering with us for six or seven months, we have cooked meals together, they have helped us raise money  by cooking at Turner Contemporary with us and cooking for hotel through ARK.

“I know several of them have been volunteering with other people in the community in Margate.

“They are part of the community and they are all terrified now. On the (Whatsapp) group they are saying about Rwanda. They have a lot of good things to offer the community and were finally feeling comfortable.

“That sense of being part of the Margate community (was) being ripped out from Margate and from them.

“They are on the road to get asylum and will have a lot to offer.”

Photo Dorset Council

The Bibby Stockholm has a capacity of about 500 residents. The Multi Agency Forum (MAF), which supports operational planning of the Bibby Stockholm barge consists of representatives from the Home Office, Dorset Council, Portland Town Council, Weymouth Town Council, Dorset Police, Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, NHS Dorset, and the barge operators Landry & Kling and CTM.

The MAF says there is an increased turnover of people, as residents receive a decision on their asylum application and right to remain in the UK.

Asylum interviews take place on board the barge and Dorset Council has an agreement with the Home Office that barge residents being granted asylum are moved to other parts of the UK.

In December an Albanian asylum seeker died while living on board the barge. The 27-year-old is thought to have taken his own life.

‘Temporary solution’

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Hotel accommodation, which currently costs £8 million a day, has always been intended as a temporary solution to ensure the Home Office meets the statutory obligation to accommodate asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute during a period of unprecedented numbers of small boat arrivals.

“We continue to deliver our plans to significantly reduce the use of asylum hotels, closing 150 by beginning of May.”

The Home Office says it does not comment on the names and locations of individual asylum hotels, or the number of hotels in operation but works closely with accommodation providers and local authorities to manage the exit process in a way which limits the impact on partners and service users.

They add that accommodation is allocated on a no-choice basis and individuals may be moved to other locations. Residents currently in hotels that the Home Office will be exiting will be moving to other parts of the asylum estate. They will be notified 5 days in advance and then moved by the Home Office.