Organizations like Amnesty International denounce that the measure deepens the dehumanization of migrant individuals and is clearly harmful to human rights.
'Stop the boats!' has become one of the main slogans of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak. The conservative politician has made the issue of migration a major battleground of his tenure and has not hesitated to stoke fear of immigration by depicting an apocalyptic scenario – far removed from reality – in which the country would be victim to an invasion of migrants.
Within this framework, the United Kingdom has begun to transfer the first asylum seekers to the Bibby Stockholm ship, docked at the port of Portland Island, off the southern coast of England. In this large vessel, qualified as a floating prison by numerous NGOs and human rights organizations, the conservative government intends to confine nearly half a thousand migrant individuals.
Thousands of protesters have raised banners against racism and the migration policy of Sunak's administration to protest the arrival of the first group of individuals – about fifteen – which has already been dubbed the 'ship of shame.'
"The Bibby Stockholm is a completely shameful way to house people who have fled from fear, conflict, and persecution; it is unacceptable for the British Government to continue this terrible treatment of people as objects to be stored," explains to Xarxanet Carlos Escaño, spokesperson for Amnesty International (AI) on immigration and refuge.
A floating prison to confine half a thousand individuals
The vessel that has been in the spotlight in recent days has a sordid past. Built in the 1970s, it is owned by the company Bibby Maritime, whose founder has been linked to the slave trade. It is an imposing three-story barge, open to the elements, with just over two hundred cabins.
Nevertheless, the British government intends to confine half a thousand asylum seekers, all men between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five, while they process their applications. Many of them will have arrived in the United Kingdom risking their lives at sea in search of a better future, fleeing war and poverty.
"Housing people on a boat is likely to reawaken traumas and should raise deep concern about confining people in a space equivalent to a standard parking space," says Escaño, who reminds us that the right to asylum is regulated by international law and is a state obligation.
Despite the legal issues and the enormous reservations the plan has sparked, the United Kingdom intends to proceed with the transfer of migrants to the ship, a process that will be carried out gradually. The argument of the British authorities is to save costs on accommodating asylum seekers, given the exasperating slowness with which refugee applications are being processed. Currently, around 160,000 people in the country are still awaiting the processing of their asylum applications.
One step closer to the dehumanization of migrant individuals
It is clear to everyone, however, that by confining migrant individuals to the Bibby Stockholm, the conservative government seeks to invisibilize the refugee crisis that the United Kingdom is experiencing due to the barriers it imposes to guarantee access to asylum procedures for those who are entitled to protection. Likewise, it seems evident that a measure like this aims to act as a deterrent for all those individuals who want to seek refuge in the country. The warning that is intended to be sent is clear: "you are not welcome".
"It is yet another example of the reception that the United Kingdom is giving to migrant individuals and asylum seekers, it seems that there is nothing that the authorities are not willing to do to send the message that these people are not welcome," expresses the AI spokesperson, who is clear that containment and deterrence measures "not only do not work, but also involve violations of human rights".
Therefore, the plan represents another step in the policy of dehumanization of migrant individuals – which, by the way, is not exclusive to the United Kingdom – and leads millions of people to be stigmatized. As a side effect, it provides fertile ground for xenophobia and the criminalization of vulnerable groups.
"The use of this vessel as a 'floating prison' is intimately linked to the dehumanizing public discourse, intentionally devoid of humanity, that seeks to target population groups that are being stripped of their human status," emphasizes Escaño, and warns that such narratives "are the prelude to measures completely outside the obligations of states regarding asylum."
The British agenda against migration: measures that violate human rights
The Bibby Stockholm has already become a symbol of the tough stance that Sunak's administration has taken against immigration, but it is not an isolated incident, quite the opposite. In this effort to push the migration agenda as far as possible, the authorities have implemented a whole array of measures that have been met with rejection from organizations defending human rights.
In this context, the British Parliament passed a law that seeks to bypass international obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees. For example, by refusing to fully recognize the definition of a refugee, as well as the prohibition of penalizing asylum seekers who enter the country irregularly, and the prohibition of discrimination and return, among others.
Likewise, another highly controversial policy adopted by the government has been to expel asylum seekers and send them to Rwanda, under a memorandum of understanding – similar to the one the European Union has just signed with Tunisia – agreed upon with the African country. A measure that the British judiciary overturned after deeming it illegal.
Added to all this is the UK's failure to fulfill its commitment to relocate Afghan refugees or the delays and obstacles in granting visas to individuals coming from Ukraine. Additionally, AI has documented how delays in the asylum system increased, with migrant individuals confined in completely inadequate accommodations, leading to a diphtheria outbreak in October and the disappearance of over two hundred unaccompanied minors.
"In general terms, we can affirm that the migration policy of the United Kingdom has continued to exacerbate homelessness, neglect, and exploitation suffered by migrant individuals, especially those in irregular administrative situations," says Carlos Escaño. The only alternative, he adds, is to establish legal and safe pathways and provide dignified reception conditions. "Implementing measures based on dignity, solidarity, and humanity is the only way," he emphasizes.