LONDON: The UK home secretary’s plans to accommodate asylum seekers on a large barge is being legally challenged by firefighters who have launched a judicial review claiming the vessel is a “potential deathtrap.”
The Fire Brigades Union has sent a formal letter, seen by The Guardian, to Suella Braverman, detailing “serious fire and operational safety concerns” about the Bibby Stockholm docked in Dorset.
Earlier in August, the Home Office was forced to evacuate the first 39 asylum seekers from the barge days after their arrival due to potentially deadly legionella bacteria being discovered onboard.
The government is set to house 506 single men on the three-story vessel while they await the outcome of asylum applications.
According to the union’s “pre-action protocol” letter, the Home Office has neglected to organize fire drills for the asylum seekers or conduct adequate risk assessments of the barge, despite more than doubling the number of planned occupants.
“The decision of the (home secretary) therefore creates an apparently entirely new, and highly dangerous accommodation arrangement, in which 506 traumatized asylum seekers may face a fire or hazardous materials emergency and need to evacuate the barge as an emergency, while being entirely untrained in fire safety, without even having undertaken fire drills. This situation is inherently unsafe,” the letter says.
The adequacy of evacuation points and emergency exits has also come under scrutiny by the FBU, The Guardian reported. According to reports, the barge is said to have three emergency exits.
“The failure of the (home secretary) to disclose any information to the FBU has only strengthened these concerns,” the letter says.
“It remains our professional view that (the barge is) a potential deathtrap and an accident waiting to happen,” it added.
The union has set a deadline of Thursday for a response to their legal letter and is requesting that no asylum seekers be returned to the barge until their concerns are addressed.
The judicial review was launched in response to the Home Office’s refusal to meet with officials to examine fire safety concerns about the narrowness of corridors, the number of exits off the barge, and modifications made to the barge to enhance its capacity.
On Aug. 17, UK Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick wrote to the union declining to meet about safety on the barge.
“The fire safety standards on the Bibby Stockholm are the same as any other berthed vessel, meeting the industry standard, and statutory inspections including fire safety checks having been successfully completed,” Jenrick wrote.
He added: “Tactical plans, including arrangements for evacuation of residents to assembly areas away from the quayside and outside the gated area, have been developed.
“I note your request for a meeting. However, the Home Office has already engaged with the appropriate bodies, Dorset and Wiltshire fire service in relation to fire safety on the Bibby Stockholm, and the National Fire Chiefs Council in relation to the changes to HMO (multiple occupation) licensing.”
FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack told The Guardian: “It is disgraceful that the home secretary is not even willing to meet us to discuss these concerns.
“Throughout this episode, the government has displayed a lack of transparency and a callous disregard for the safety of both firefighters and those who are due to be housed on the barge.
“This is an industrial issue for the Fire Brigades Union as our members are the ones expected to respond to any fire aboard the Bibby Stockholm. We have therefore decided to move toward a legal challenge on this matter.”
The Bibby Stockholm is one of three barges that the government plans to use to lower the housing costs of asylum seekers and discourage dangerous Channel crossings.
Many asylum seekers designated for the Bibby Stockholm are survivors of torture, modern slavery, or have serious health conditions. Human rights activists argue that such circumstances make the barge an unsuitable living space.
A Home Office spokesperson told The Guardian: “The health and welfare of asylum seekers remains of the utmost priority. The Bibby Stockholm successfully completed all fire and safety checks ahead of the first individuals boarding. The vessel completed a statutory inspection and refurbishment before undergoing final preparations to accommodate asylum seekers.”