A large “barge” (read: prison) for asylum seekers has recently arrived in the port of Portland, on the south coast of England in Dorset. The floating facility is called “Bibby Stockholm” and, beginning this summer, will “accommodate” around 500 male migrants between the ages of 18 to 65 for approximately 18 months. The aim is to keep these migrants offshore (preventing them from setting foot on English soil) while they wait for their cases to be processed.
To counter immigration, the European Union and its Western allies — from Calais to the Greek islands, all the way to the Mexican border — have already transformed arbitrary territorial boundaries into walls of barbed wire and watchtowers, fashioning entire islands into migrant prisons. These imperialist governments employ many techniques to intercept asylum seekers, mobilizing coast guards and drones, and even capsizing makeshift boats in the Mediterranean Sea. Now, the British government has reached a new low in its display of hatred toward migrants with its latest invention: a floating prison.
Refugees seeking asylum in the UK who survive the treacherous journey (nearly 30,000 people have disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea alone since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration) and escape from open-air prisons such as Calais, Samos, or Lampedusa, will have to remain docked at a distance, locked inside the bowels of a prisoner ship indefinitely, until the horrifying living conditions, unbearable overcrowding, and rolling waves extinguish any glimmer of a hope for a better life.
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman has attempted to justify the floating prison against public outcry by claiming it is about “saving money.” But according to The Guardian, these savings will actually be minimal. In reality, money isn’t the issue; it is about creating a symbol and sending a message. In England, as in France, Greece, or Italy (where government leaders are pursuing the same murderous escalation against migrants), there expenses that are “acceptable” and others that are not. A few months earlier, Suella Braverman declared, “I would love to have a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession.” To achieve this “dream,” there was no question of cost-cutting.
An immigration bill introduced by the Sunak government last March already pushed the boundaries of what was tolerable, including bans on seeking asylum for those arriving through the English Channel, the exclusion of “illegal migrants” from protections against modern slavery under the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, as well as the retroactive application of these measures. The British government, which has entrusted the company Bibby Marine to carry out its deadly floating prison project, has shown its cruelty has no limits. Bibby Marine was founded in the 19th century by John Bibby, a magnate who had made his fortune in colonial trade and slave deportation.
Western imagination has long associated punishment with the sea. From the 16th century onwards, galleys served as prisons. By the mid-19th century, this association became almost natural. Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo contributed to this image. The transportation of convicts to the penal colony of French Guiana or to the Île de Ré, as well as the repression of the Communards of the Paris Commune, followed suit. Maritime sanctions were then both real (from death by drowning to confinement in maritime or overseas settings) and imaginary, even mythical, in the form of ancient or medieval sea monsters. Today, more than ever, these monsters exist. They are not at sea, but at the helm of our governments.
Originally published in French on July 21 in Révolution Permanente.
Translation by Emma Lee