THE Bibby Stockholm barge will “feel like a prison” to the desperate asylum seekers fleeing war who are housed there, according to a man who lived on the vessel for half a year.

Ruairi Kelly told The National how he had lived there while the barge was docked at Lerwick, Shetland in 2013 and 2014 during the construction of the Shetland Gas Plant.

Kelly, who had worked on the vessel as a health and safety adviser on the project, said the conditions had been tolerable for people who were using it as a base from which to work.

But he said that during his time on the barge, there were only 200 people onboard – with the Government planning for more than double that amount to live on the vessel, which Kelly, now an SNP councillor in Glasgow, said would lead to “claustrophobic” conditions inside.

His warning comes just a day after the first asylum seekers boarded the vessel, while it is docked at a harbour on Portland – an island off the south coast of England.

Asylum seekers will be allowed off the barge, are not subject to a curfew and will be taken out of the harbour by coaches to "destinations agreed with local agencies", the UK Government has said.

But people who are back onboard “late” will be called so the authorities know their whereabouts and that a register will be kept.

'Cooped up and claustrophobic' 

Kelly expressed concerns about the mental health of those who will live there – citing the example of the Park Hotel stabbing tragedy in Glasgow in 2020 as an example of what can happen to people “cooped up” in inadequate accommodation for months at a time.

Because asylum seekers are denied the right to work in the UK while awaiting refugee status, there is little reason for those housed on the boat to leave during the day, something Kelly said could exacerbate mental health problems. 

READ MORE: Charity blocks Home Office boarding asylum seekers onto Bibby Stockholm barge

He said: “The facility itself just doesn’t lend itself to probably the needs of those people. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the facility was more than adequate for the purposes of me staying there, and eating there and sleeping there whenever I was working.

“But I knew I was getting home at the end of the three weeks and I was getting paid a decent wage, whereas the indefinite stay that a lot of these people have – we’re not talking weeks, it could be months if not years that some people could be on it while they wait for a decision through the broken immigration system at the Home Office.”

The rooms are said to be around nine foot by nine foot – a figure not disputed by the Home Office when approached by The National – and are en suites. Kelly described them as “much smaller” than a normal hotel room.

'Not a lot of living space'

Sharing rooms with likely strangers would exacerbate “existing mental health problems and vulnerabilities” commonly suffered by asylum seekers, Kelly added.

He said: “Whenever we were there, you either had the room to yourself or if you were sharing a room, you’d have done back-to-back shifts, so if you had a roommate, they’d have been doing night shift while you were doing day shift or vice-versa, so there would only ever have been 200-odd people on the boat along with the staff or whatever that worked there.

“The way this is set up it will be double the amount of people that were there whenever I was on it.

“With no work to go to, they’ll probably be on it the vast majority of the time.

“The impact I think that will have, you know there were people who found it difficult whenever we were working away, in terms of the almost claustrophobic nature of the place.

“They’re small enough rooms […] there’s not a lot of living space.

“That was alright if you were out working most of the day, so if you were cooped up in that for extended periods of the day, with somebody else in your room and hundreds and hundreds of other people who most likely have their own issues if they’re fleeing war zones or whatever.

“That’s going to put a lot of stress on people who are probably already quite vulnerable. We’re seeing the impact that had at the Park Hotel in Glasgow.

“You’re not talking about a few dozen people in a hotel in the middle of a city, you’re talking about 500-odd people on a barge, in a harbour, cut off from everybody else […] It’ll feel very much like a prison.

“Even like the silly things that would seem daft, like if you’ve got someone in your room that snores and you’re going to be there with them every night for, it could be 18 months or however long, that sort of living stacked on top of each other with the lack of support that there will be for existing mental health problems and vulnerabilities and all of the other support that people that are seeking asylum often need, will probably not be there.

“You’re not going to be rolling out the red carpet for them. It’ll amplify any issues anybody has a hundredfold.”

First asylum seekers on board 

According to a Home Office fact sheet on the Bibby Stockholm, all rooms on the barge will be equipped with windows, air conditioning, heating units, storage and the vessel is said to be Wi-Fi enabled.

The Home Office, which is the UK Government department responsible for asylum policy, also said there were “multiple” communal areas, a canteen and a laundry for residents to use.

READ MORE: UK Government explores 'potential site' to house refugees on barge in Scotland

It is not known for how long people housed on the barge will live there, but the UK Government expects asylum seekers to stay for between three to six weeks – though this could rise to nine months.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The first asylum seekers are now being housed on the vessel in Portland after it successfully completed all health, fire and safety checks.

"The number of people on board will increase gradually with more arrivals later this week and in the coming months, as part of a carefully structured phased approach.

“This marks a further step forward in the government’s work to bring forward alternative accommodation options as part of its pledge to reduce the use of expensive hotels and move to a more orderly, sustainable system which is more manageable for local communities.

"This is a tried and tested approach that mirrors that taken by our European neighbours, the Scottish Government and offers better value for the British taxpayer.”