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Asylum Waiting Lists Rocket by 236% as Migrant Housed on Cramped Barge Takes Own Life

A day after the suicide of a man aboard the Bibby Stockholm exclusive data obtained by this newspaper shows migrants waiting three years or more for a decision on their future has more than trebled in the past year

The Bibby Stockholm Barge. Photo: Zeynep Demir Aslim/Alamy

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The number of asylum seekers waiting three years or more for a decision on their future has more than trebled in the past year, according to exclusive data obtained by this newspaper.

During the same period, those who have been waiting at least a year have seen their number almost double, Byline Times has learned, as has that of those awaiting any kind of outcome.

Our findings come a day after a man who was waiting to be processed took his own life onboard the Bibby Stockholm barge, which houses asylum seekers offshore, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda plan scraped through the Commons.

Migration experts say the uncertainty asylum claimants feel about the future, and the indefinite waiting time for a decision, cause intense feelings of psychological distress, which can lead to suicide.

Added to that are issues around the quality of accommodation, such as the cramped conditions aboard Bibby Stockholm, which has the capacity to house around 500 people in little over 200 rooms smaller than a parking space, described by one MP as a “quasi-prison”.

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Responding to our data, Labour’s Shadow Immigration Minister Stephen Kinnock told Byline Times: “Under the Conservatives, the asylum backlog has spiralled from just 19,000 in 2010 to 165,000 today.

“These long delays mean people are stuck in limbo and hotel use has reached a record high costing more than £8m a day. 

“Labour will hire more than 1,000 new caseworkers to clear the backlog, and set up a new cross-border police unit to work with Europol to stop the criminal gangs in the first place.”

A spokesman for Labour leader Keir Starmer, when asked whether Mr Starmer believed the huge waits for an initial decision could be having an impact on the mental health of asylum seekers, told Byline Times: “I’m sure that it is and that’s why Keir believes we need to increase the number of caseworkers that there are. 

“We have set out plans to do that so we can have 1000 more caseworkers so that we can process claims more quickly and we can also reduce the hotel bill for taxpayers.”

Today’s Byline Times data, obtained via a Freedom of Information request, highlights the human cost of the government’s ongoing immigration disaster and lays bare the full extent of asylum delays. Between January and March 2023, the number of people waiting three years or more years has increased by 236%, from 531 to 1,789, compared to the same period the previous year.

Over the same period, the number of those waiting a year or more to learn their fate has jumped 96% from 3,634 to 7,124. The number awaiting any decision has gone up 122% from 4,827 to 10,750.

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In the past few years, legal asylum routes to the UK have become largely cut off, leading to an increased number of people arriving in small boats. A shortage of social housing has seen those seeking asylum increasingly housed in hotels. However, the policy has been unpopular due to its perceived cost and impact on local services.

In an attempt to appease this, and end the reliance on hotels, the government has sought alternatives, such as former military bases, and the Bibby Stockholm, moored off the Dorset coast.

However, the use of the three-storey barge – which in 2008 saw two deaths when used by the Dutch authorities to house asylum seekers – has been controversial. 

While the Home Office admitted it would house around 500 people on the Bibby Stockholm, an official brochure released by owner Bibby Marine shows there are only 222 “single en-suite bedrooms”. Cabins designed for single occupancy now have bunk beds, and people must share with strangers.  Each person’s living space is smaller than the average car park bay, in conditions likened to a “quasi-prison” by Conservative MP, Richard Drax.

From the start, there was considerable opposition to the plan, both from local people and national organisations, with campaigners calling it “cruel and inhumane”. The vessel was first used for accommodating asylum seekers in August but was evacuated after Legionella bacteria was found in the water supply, with people returning to it in October.

Yesterday, on the day the government avoided a damaging defeat as the second reading of its Rwanda bill passed with a 44 majority, the Bibby Stockholm experienced its first death while under UK control.

Police were called to the 506-person capacity vessel in Portland Port, Dorset, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and its officers are carrying out enquiries. The man, who has not been identified, is thought to have taken his own life in a communal bathroom. He was found dead at 6.20 am yesterday after reports of his screaming and banging on the walls of his shared bedroom. 

Mr Drax, MP for South Dorset, said it was a “tragedy born of an impossible situation”. “One can only imagine the desperate circumstances which led to this sad outcome; we must do all that we can to end this evil trade in human misery.”​

Home Secretary James Cleverly told MPs the death would be fully investigated, adding: “I’m sure that the thoughts of the whole House, like mine, are with those affected.”

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Several studies have highlighted the human impact long waits can have on asylum seekers. A 2018 paper published in the British Medical Journal on the health of “forced migrants”, including asylum seekers, said that “unemployment exacerbates social exclusion”, while “long periods of inactivity provide time to ruminate on past experiences and worries about the future.” 

A second study, published in 2022, examining the experiences of asylum seekers in Sweden, found that “overwhelming uncertainty about the future and the indefinite waiting time for a decision” on asylum claims” caused “intense feelings of psychological distress” in participants.

The Home Office told Byline Times that the department had taken steps to reduce the legacy backlog and that it funded programmes aimed at providing mental health and wellbeing support to adult asylum seekers.

Of the Bibby Stockholm, it added that all accommodation provided met regulatory standards.

A spokesperson said: “The government is committed to processing asylum claims without unnecessary delay. “We have more than doubled the number of decision-makers and have significantly increased productivity which has reduced the backlog of legacy asylum cases by over 60%

“We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously and at every stage in the asylum process our approach is to ensure that the needs and vulnerabilities of asylum seekers are identified and considered including those related to mental health and trauma. 

“The Home Office, Dorset Council, local public agencies and the vessel’s management team work continually to ensure life on board the barge is positive for asylum seekers.”  


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But Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: “This is an appalling loss of life but tragically not surprising. 

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

“Nobody who comes to our country seeking asylum should be left without the support they need yet the system has more hostility than compassion built into it. It is imperative that an independent review is carried out into this death so that lessons are learned to avoid any further tragedies of this kind.

“A new approach that always sees the face behind the case and treats every individual person with the dignity and humanity they deserve is urgently needed.”

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