Legionella Traces Force Early Bibby Stockholm Evacuation

Bibby Stockholm – the UK government’s latest asylum seeker management project – has suffered yet another setback. Earlier this week, the first instalments of migrants who had been resettled onto the barge had to be evacuated, after traces of Legionella bacteria were found in the water system.

Legionella bacteria can cause dangerous diseases like Legionnaires’ disease: a severe form of pneumonia. The bacteria usually lives in bodies of water like rivers and lakes, but can also grow inside water tanks and plumbing systems – like Bibby Stockholm’s.

When people breathe in infected water, for example, when showering in an infected system, the Legionella can get into their lungs and lead to pneumonia. While most Legionnaires patients make a full recovery, severe cases can require oxygen support, and around 10% of cases are fatal.

So far, none of the 39 evacuated refugees have tested positive for Legionnaires’, but the disease can take up to 16 days to manifest symptomatically. Legionnaires’ is not transmitted person to person.

What is Bibby Stockholm?

Bibby Stockholm is the name of a barge, moored in Dorset, which the Conservative UK government intends to use to house asylum seekers. The plan was to temporarily house 500 single men aged 18-65 on board, with the first 39 men transferred on August 7th.

The Sunak administration’s justification for using the barge is that it will be more cost-effective than the usual hotels used to house migrants waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. Sunak’s government claims they are currently spending 6 million pounds (AUD$11.7mil) every day on hotel costs for refugees.

Still, the Bibby venture has been fraught with issues – political and practical. Public commentators and politicians alike have decried the barge as inhumane.

The CEO of refugee charity Care4Calais, which is representing asylum seekers contesting transfers to Bibby, noted that “Among our clients are people who are disabled, who have survived torture and modern slavery and who have had traumatic experiences at sea.

To house any human being in a ‘quasi floating prison’ like the Bibby Stockholm is inhumane. To try and do so to this group of people is unbelievably cruel.”

The barge also experienced delays over safety concerns, with the UK’s Fire Brigade Union warning that the vessel was a “death trap”. Ben Shelby, the FBU’s general secretary, called the project “a huge health and safety risk”, admonishing Home Secretary Suella Braverman for not responding to the Union’s letter of concern.

There are mixed reports on when the government found out about the Legionella traces, with some saying they waited too long to act decisively.

Rishi Sunak’s “stop the boats”

One of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s election promises was a pledge to “stop the boats” – a phrase not unfamiliar to Australians. But the premise was far from new in Britain, too. Over a year ago, under Boris Johnson, the Tories passed a law they declared would stop boats and hotel use, and penalise people for trying to claim asylum.

Boat crossings rose to a record 45,000 compared to just a few hundred years ago. Numbers of refugees held in hotels rose. And asylum delays have spiralled out of control, with a backlog of about 166,000 applications.

More recently, a £400,000 Home Office drone used to monitor boats in the Channel crashed into the sea, and the record for the highest number of asylum seekers crossing the Channel was broken last Thursday. Last Monday, the government announced plans to deport migrants to Ascension Island, 4,000 miles away, and dropped them just hours later.

Bibby Stockholm seems set to fall in line with this legacy; so far proving to be “a complete and utter shambles,” in the words of shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock. “This is a catalogue of catastrophe, and government ministers should hang their heads in shame.”

Cover image: “Bibby Stockholm, Falmouth Docks, 2023” by Ashley Smith is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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