LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholic activists in the UK are calling for the closing of a barge used by the goverment to house asylum seekers following the apparent suicide of a migrant housed in the facility.

The age and nationality of the man who has died have not been confirmed.

Moored off the island of Portland in southwestern England, the three-story Bibby Stockholm barge has 200 cabins housing 500 men awaiting the outcome of their asylum applications. A police statement indicated that early in the morning Dec. 12, officers responded to a report of a sudden death on board and are currently investigating the incident.

Media organizations, including the BBC, have reported that the death was a suicide.

“These are the real human consequences of deliberate and performative cruelty against people seeking sanctuary in the UK,” said Sarah Teather, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the U.K. (JRS UK).

“It is time to stop focusing on the politics and start considering the people whose lives are torn apart by these appalling practices,” she said.

“The government must immediately stop placing people on the Bibby Stockholm, and instead ensure they can access safe and dignified accommodation in our communities. Forcing people to live on the barge is part of a wider move to place those seeking asylum in large-scale, institutional, out-of-town, and quasi-detention settings, that is strongly opposed by JRS UK,” Teather added.

Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster Paul McAleenan, the lead bishop for migrants and refugees, said he was deeply saddened to hear of the death of an asylum seeker on board the Bibby Stockholm barge.

“Every migrant and refugee has a name, a face, and a story which must be listened to. This death, and the death of everyone seeking sanctuary, is a tragedy. Our prayers are with the one who has lost their life, their family and their friends,” he said.

“Whilst we don’t have the full facts of the story, it is important to recognize that we need an immigration system that defends the fundamental human dignity of those on the move, prioritizes the sanctity of life and provides access to decent accommodation and healthcare. We will continue to advocate for this,” McAleenan said.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesperson confirmed that the reported death was being investigated.

“Everyone arriving on Bibby Stockholm has a medical assessment, they are continually monitored when staying in the accommodation and are given any necessary support as you would rightly expect,” he told the Guardian.

The Anglican Bishop of Sherborne, Karen Gorham, said the immigrant’s death had “shaken the community,” and added that local church and faith groups had been supporting those housed in the barge.

“Strangers are becoming friends and so we feel this loss of life acutely,” she told the BBC, adding that local faith leaders had been asked to provide support following the death.

“We look forward to being able to make more regular welfare visits as the wellbeing of all those on board is vital,” Gorham said.

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, called for an independent review of the incident.

“We know from our work supporting men women and children in the asylum system that many are deeply traumatized and feel isolated and unable to get the help they need. Some are so desperate they self-harm and feel suicidal,” he said.

“It is imperative that an independent review is carried out into this death so that lessons are learned,” Solomon added.

Earlier this year, the JRS UK warned that those forced to live on the barge will be subjected to overcrowding and face severe restrictions in movement.

“Large-scale, detention-like sites such as this expose people who have fled danger to severe re-trauma; cause near universal, chronic sleep deprivation; and rapidly lead to deterioration in their mental health,” the charity said.

It issued a document calling the Bibby Stockholm facility “cruel and dangerous” because:

  • People will be warehoused in an overcrowded, prison-like space with few facilities;
  • freedom of movement will be very limited; both the detention-like nature of the site, and the fact that it is a boat, pose a risk of re-trauma to people seeking sanctuary;
  • there is a serious danger of both fire and infection;
  • and access to healthcare is likely to be inadequate.

Following the death on Tuesday, Teather noted the charity knows “too well from our experience of accompanying people at Napier Barracks, the brutal reality of these large-scale containment sites.”

Napier Barracks is located in Kent and has been used since 2020 as contingency or temporary accommodation for those seeking asylum.

Teather said such facilities are deeply harmful.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the man who died [at Bibby Stockholm], his friends and family, those still onboard the barge, and everyone affected by this tragedy,” she said.