Bibby Stockholm: Legionella isn’t the only health threat on migrant barges

The health effects of overcrowding are significant

A few days after check-in, asylum seekers were taken from the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge due to the presence of Legionella bacteria on board. Dorset County Council, where the barge is located, expressed concern that delays in evacuating people would increase their risk of exposure to potentially deadly bacteria.

Even before this development, the use of barges to accommodate asylum seekers was already controversial. This is due to the impact on the local community and the conditions of the people on board.

The barge has been used in the past to house workers, including military personnel. But when used for asylum seekers, the barge’s cabin, originally designed for one person and only “slightly larger” than a prison cell, will be used to accommodate at least two people.

Asylum seekers are expected to share their small lodgings with strangers. Few people are willing to accept this situation. It doesn’t meet the government’s own bedroom standards, which in itself isn’t considered generous.

Such overcrowded environments can have a variety of negative health consequences, including anxiety, depression and psychological distress. They are also associated with an increased risk of respiratory diseases, including COVID-19 and tuberculosis, as well as infectious diseases. (PDF).

These diseases include diarrhea and gastroenteritis. We often hear stories of the spread of norovirus (a common cause of gastroenteritis) through other high-density spaces such as cruise ships and resorts. However, population densities in these areas tend to be much lower than Bibi Stockholm expected.

The health effects of overcrowding are significant. A review of the evidence found that in New Zealand, about one in five hospitalizations for infectious diseases was due to overcrowded home conditions. (PDF).

There is a link between overcrowding and mental health problems in the general population, but the risk may be higher for those who have recently fled their home countries due to trauma they have already experienced.

confinement life

Another important difference in the experience of asylum seekers on the barge compared to others on board is the restricted movement and high security they will experience. Residents will not be able to freely leave the barge or the nearby quarantine area.

Like most UK asylum seekers, they are prohibited from working and receive extremely low levels of financial support, which will severely limit any activity they can undertake. They will likely spend most of their time on board in cramped rooms (TVs not plugged in) or limited space on board.

The lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic (PDF) The importance of safe and adequate housing to protect our health and wellbeing, and the challenges of movement restrictions. Asylum seekers living in Bibi Stockholm will experience lockdown-like conditions, with evidence that the lockdown has had a more negative impact on those whose homes are smaller and have no outside space.

Bibi Stockholm’s premises are not only grim, but dangerous. Fire brigade unions have raised concerns about fire safety on board the ship, fears familiar to those who have spent time in homes found to be covered in combustible siding after the Grenfell Tower fire.

In addition, there are concerns about the lack of life jackets. This concern may be especially acute for people who cannot swim. For those who might arrive via dangerous sea voyages, simply being stuck in the water can be traumatic.

Savings, how much does it cost?

The government argues Bibby Stockholm needs to save on housing costs for asylum seekers while dealing with a backlog of applications.But there is little evidence that this (PDF)and the potential health costs of those on the barge could easily consume all savings.

Among the general population in England, the health impact of substandard housing is thought to cost the NHS £1.4bn a year. Overcrowding was the third biggest contributor to this figure.

While conditions on the barges could be detrimental to the health of those living there, many of the issues will also apply to other “places of detention” for asylum seekers. Bibi Stockholm is the latest in a long history of housing asylum seekers in the worst conditions, including a recent trend towards the use of “near detention” places. (PDF)these places are isolated, have high levels of security, and reduce people’s access to privacy, freedom, and legal advice.

Government ministers say the use of hotels as temporary accommodation is a “pull factor” for asylum seekers, drawing them to the UK. Housing is a basic and necessary need and should not be used as a deterrent or punishment in a punitive manner. Indeed, as long as the stressors forcing people to seek asylum remain, any deterrent is unlikely to work.

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