Two asylum seekers said they have been threatened with homelessness if they refuse to move back onto the Bibby Stockholm. ITV News' Iona Napier, Anushka Asthana and Lewis Denison report
Asylum seekers who spent time on the Bibby Stockholm have told ITV News they were allowed to drink water on the barge long after the Home Office became aware of a dangerous bacteria present there.
The men, who did not want to be named for fear of jeopardising their asylum claims, also said the Home Office threatened to withdraw all support and effectively leave them homeless if they do not return when told.
They discovered via social media that the legionella bacteria - which can cause the potentially fatal Legionnaires’ disease - had been found on the barge but they were not evacuated until hours later.
“We took a shower at 5:00pm and drank from the water until 7:00pm, when we were evacuated," said one man via a translator, adding that the 39 men onboard were not even told why they were being moved again.
He said he is “really worried” about the health risks of returning and not only because more legionella has been discovered since they left.
“The reality is that Bibby Stockholm cannot accommodate 500 people… My concern is if something happens, if there's a fire or anything like that, then people would die just by jumping over each other because there is no space and the doors are very small.”
The Fire Brigades Union also raised concerns about the safety of the vessel, labelling it a "potential death trap," but Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she is "very confident that this barge is safe for human habitation."
One man said people on the boat had been threatened with effective homelessness if they do not follow orders to return.
"We were told that you have to return, you have to go back there," he said.
"If you don't, the Home Office will cut all the facilities that you're entitled to.
"And basically you become homeless because you don't receive any support from the Home Office if you refuse to return to the barge."
Ministers have insisted that the Bibby Stockholm can safely house more than 500 migrants after it was modified to increase its previous capacity of 222.
But one asylum seeker said the boat is “like a prison” where he and dozens of migrants are being experimented on.
“We feel like we are mice in a laboratory. They're just doing different kinds of tests on us," he said.
The Home Office disputes claims the barge amounts to a floating prison, insisting people housed there will be free to come and go as they please.
But the other man said the boat is “worse than a prison” because while in jail, people know their rights and have certainty.
“It’s really traumatising,” he said, adding that there was "a lot of psychological pressure on us” to board the boat.
He said their treatment reminded him of traumatic experiences in his home country.
“We were really stressed and there was a lot of pressure on us. We didn't want to go there, but we accepted it because we just wanted to be - we didn't want to break the laws.”
He added: “The Bibby Stockholm repeated the tragedy that we had all gone through in the past. We had to live in a very small space.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: "The accommodation offered to asylum seekers, on a no choice basis, is of a decent standard and meets all legal and contractual requirements.
"Any asylum seeker who refuses accommodation provided for them may have their government support withdrawn.
"We have followed advice from UKHSA at all times and asylum seekers will return to the barge in due course."
Conservative Richard Drax, the MP for South Dorset where the barge is located, has previously raised concerns with the government about the potential for around 500 “young men” to behave badly in his constituency.
But one of the asylum seekers said they will be an “investment that will pay out in the long-term” if their applications for UK refuge are approved, because they want to enter the workforce.
“A lot of them are educated people. They have skills... They come from very strong backgrounds and they can be useful here.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, however, is pressing ahead with the plan, which he is hoping will be a deterrent to the thousands of migrants who illegally enter the UK each month by crossing the English Channel on small boats.
More than 23,000 migrants have succeeded in making the journey this year after the PM made ‘stopping the boats’ one of his top priorities at the start of January.
Since the start of September, more than 1,600 have been detected crossing the Channel, according to the Home Office, however the latest figures do not yet include the number which crossed during the extremely warm weekend.
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick last week was unable to say exactly when migrants will return to the barge.
He told MPs: “It was very unfortunate that migrants had to be moved off the barge over the summer. We deeply regret that. We did take a very precautionary approach.
“Tests have subsequently been carried out and the definitive answers to those tests will be received very shortly.
“Assuming that they show no signs of Legionella or indeed any other bacteria or cause of concern, then we will move people back onto the boat as soon as possible. I think we can expect that within weeks.”
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