An Open Letter to Bibby Marine - Refugee Council
July 4, 2023

An Open Letter to Bibby Marine

Image by Ashley Smith, CC BY-SA 4.0

More than fifty organisations and campaigners, including the Refugee Council, Asylum Matters and Refugee Action, have penned an open letter to Bibby Marine, the owner of the Bibby Stockholm, the barge contracted by the UK Government to house people seeking asylum at Portland Port.

The letter highlights the company’s well-evidenced historic ties to the transatlantic slave trade and points out the detention-like conditions that will be in place on board, and asks for a public response. We are hosting the letter and signatories on behalf of campaigner Nicola David of One Life To Live and are proud to be part of her campaign.

3 July 2023

Mr Nigel Quinn
Bibby Marine
3rd Floor, Walker House
Exchange Flags
L2 3YL

Dear Mr Quinn

We are calling on you to publicly address claims that your founder was engaged in the slave trade.

We are a group of organisations and individuals concerned with the welfare of people who have come to Britain to seek sanctuary from war, conflict or persecution.

Your company has contracted to charter the Bibby Stockholm to the Home Office for an initial 18-month period. The barge will soon be berthed at Portland Port and will contain around 500 people who would otherwise be accommodated in communities. We believe that containing people who have been through traumatising experiences, especially on a floating vessel, is cruel and inhumane.

We strongly believe that your vessels are entirely inappropriate for use in this way, and that this view will be shared by the majority of people in the UK who want a fair and humane asylum system.

In our view, the barge constitutes quasi-detention.

Those who will be contained on the barge are not criminals; they are seeking protection in the UK. The barge is not officially to be used as a prison or detention vessel, yet people will be held in detention-like conditions [PDF] with severe restrictions on freedom of movement:

  • According to Portland Port, “asylum-seekers will not be free to move around the port. When on port property they will be kept on the Bibby Stockholm or in a secure compound adjacent to the barge.”
  • The remote location of the port will make it difficult for people to access communities off the island.
  • With only £9.10 per week each to spend, there will be very little they can do, and few places they can go, even when able to leave the port.
  • The cabins on the Bibby Stockholm are designed to be used by one individual. Under this scheme, that will be doubled up—so people will share a tiny room with at least one stranger, just like in most UK prisons.

Most of these people will have fled appalling circumstances in countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Syria and Eritrea, and Home Office statistics show that their asylum claims are almost always successful. How can it be right to contain people in desperate need in these conditions?

In no way can the conditions of containment on the Bibby Stockholm, or individuals’ own circumstances, compare with the barge’s prior accommodation of workers (for example, at Lerwick). Many people forced to flee their homes are victims of trafficking or other forms of modern slavery, and detention-like settings trigger memories of exploitation. Some have made treacherous journeys by sea, and being placed on a floating vessel is particularly retraumatising for them. They will also live under severe restrictions.

We believe that Bibby Marine has not considered the harm that this deal will cause to those who will be contained on the Bibby Stockholm, who are already traumatised and who may already have been trafficked—and who will continue to be traumatised simply by being on board your barge.

We further believe that your company’s alleged historical association with the slave trade makes it all the more important that you reflect deeply on whether a contract which leads to the effective detention of people fleeing war and persecution is where your company wishes to position itself in 2023.

Links between your parent company Bibby Line Group (BLG) and the slave trade have repeatedly been made. If true, we appeal to you to consider what actions you might take in recompense.

Bibby Marine’s modern slavery statement says that one of the company’s values is to “do the right thing”, and that you “strongly support the eradication of slavery, as well as the eradication of servitude, forced or compulsory labour and human trafficking”. These are admirable words.

Meanwhile, your parent company’s website says that it is “family owned with a rich history”. Please will you clarify whether this rich history includes slaving voyages where ships were owned, and cargoes transported, by BLG’s founder John Bibby, six generations ago. The BLG website says that in 1807 (which is when slavery was abolished in Britain), “John Bibby began trading as a shipowner in Liverpool with his partner John Highfield”. John Bibby is listed as co-owner of three slaving ships, of which John Highfield co-owned two:

  • In 1805, the Harmonie (co-owned by John Bibby and three others, including John Highfield) left Liverpool for a voyage which carried 250 captives purchased in West Central Africa and St Helena, delivering them to Cumingsberg in 1806 (see the SlaveVoyages database using Voyage ID 81732).
  • In 1806, the Sally (co-owned by John Bibby and two others) left Liverpool for a voyage which transported 250 captives purchased in Bassa and delivered them to Barbados (see the SlaveVoyages database using Voyage ID 83481).
  • In 1806, the Eagle (co-owned by John Bibby and four others, including John Highfield) left Liverpool for a voyage which transported 237 captives purchased in Cameroon and delivered them to Kingston in 1807 (see the SlaveVoyages database using Voyage ID 81106).

The same and related claims were recently mentioned by Private Eye. They also appear in the story of Liverpool’s Calderstones Park [PDF] and on the website of National Museums Liverpool and in this blog post “Shenanigans in Shipping” (a detailed history of the BLG). They are also mentioned by Laurence Westgaph, a TV presenter specialising in Black British history and slavery and the author of Read The Signs: Street Names with a Connection to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Abolition in Liverpool [PDF], published with the support of English Heritage, The City of Liverpool, Northwest Regional Development Agency, National Museums Liverpool and Liverpool Vision.

While of course your public pledges on slavery underline that there is no possibility of there being any link between the activities of John Bibby and John Highfield in the early 1800s and your activities in 2023, we do believe that it is in the public interest to raise this connection, and to ask for a public expression of your categorical renunciation of the reported slave trade activities of Mr Bibby and Mr Highfield.

Therefore, we request that Bibby Marine:

  • withdraw from chartering vessels for the containment of people fleeing war, conflict and persecution, and
  • acknowledge any historical connections with the slave trade and, should they exist, place the company on the right side of history by finding an appropriate way to make amends, as far as this can be possible, not least in ceasing to contain people on your vessels.

  • Nicola David, Founder, One Life To Live
  • Enver Solomon, Refugee Council
  • Emily Crowley, Chief Executive, STAR (Student Action for Refugees)
  • Sian Summers-Rees, Chief Officer, City of Sanctuary UK
  • Tim Naor Hilton, Chief Executive, Refugee Action
  • Liz Fekete, Director, Institute of Race Relations
  • Denise McDowell, Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit
  • Sally Daghlian OBE, CEO, Praxis
  • Zoe Gardner, National Committee, Another Europe is Possible
  • Lou Calvey, independent UK refugee and asylum specialist
  • Mabli Jones, Deputy Director, Asylum Matters
  • Tigs Louis-Puttick, Founder, Reclaim The Sea
  • Maddie Harris, Founder, Humans For Rights Network
  • Kamena Dorling, Head of Policy, Helen Bamber Foundation
  • Rivka Shaw, Policy Officer, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit
  • Sally Hough, Director, Napier Barracks Drop-In Centre
  • Aderonke Apata, Founder and CEO, African Rainbow Family
  • Eleanor Brown, Managing Director, CARAS
  • The Baroness Brinton, House of Lords (Liberal Democrats)
  • Juliet Kilpin and Simon Jones, Peaceful Borders
  • Charlotte Zosseder, Director, Samphire
  • Qerim Nuredini, CEO, Bristol Refugee Rights
  • Jo Cobley, CEO, Young Roots
  • Susannah Baker MBE, Founder/Trustee, The Pickwell Foundation
  • Maya Esslemont, Director, After Exploitation
  • Detention Action
  • Bridget Young, Director, NACCOM (The No Accommodation Network)
  • Lucian Dee, Waterloo Community Counselling
  • Rosario Guimba-Steward, CEO, Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network
  • Amber Bauer, CEO, forRefugees
  • Catharine Walston, Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign
  • The William Gomes Podcast
  • Refugee Support Europe
  • Lucy Nabijou, Coordinator, Haringey Welcome
  • Shelley Moister and James Batty, Trustees, One And All Aid
  • Loraine Masiya Mponela, author
  • West London Welcome
  • Sarah Teather, Director, Jesuit Refugee Service UK
  • Steve Smith MBE, CEO, Care4Calais
  • Jenni Regan, CEO, IMIX
  • Simon Taylor, Trustee, Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers
  • Josie Naughton, CEO/Co-Founder, Choose Love
  • Rainbow Migration
  • Ewa Lelontko, Co-Founder, Voices Without Borders
  • Sara Robinson, Director, St. Augustine’s Centre
  • Eleanor Bano-Few
  • Mark Goldring, Director, Asylum Welcome
  • Cllr Steve Munby, Liverpool City Council
  • Cllr Lucy Williams, Liverpool City Council
  • Cllr Alan Gibbons, Liverpool City Council
  • Cllr Pat Moloney, Liverpool City Council
  • Cllr Joe Dunne, Liverpool City Council
  • Cllr Lucille Harvey, Liverpool City Council
  • Bristol Defend Asylum Seekers Campaign
  • Merseyside Solidarity Knows No Borders
  • Rabbi David Mason, Executive Director, HIAS+JCORE
  • Ian Byrne MP, Liverpool West Derby (Labour)