Protesters Block Coach Moving Asylum Seekers, As Resistance to Rwanda Plan Mounts

‘The more they keep coming back, the bigger the resistance seems to be getting.’

by Charlotte England

2 May 2024

Photo: Charlotte England

Dozens of people blocked a coach in south London to stop it from taking asylum seekers to the Bibby Stockholm “prison” barge against their will on Thursday morning.

Activists gathered outside a hotel in Peckham from 7.30am to prevent the removal of eight people who have been living at the hotel for three to nine months.

Despite a large police presence, protesters were able to surround the coach, letting the air out of its tyres and throwing Lime bikes underneath its wheels to stop it from leaving.

Around five people are believed to have been arrested as of Thursday afternoon, with police and activists in a standoff.

It comes amid a week of direct action against an increasingly authoritarian state, which is gearing up to deport the first asylum seekers to Rwanda in nine to 11 weeks. The draconian new policy has been condemned in the courts and slammed by human rights organisations, activists and the United Nations. 

On Tuesday, protesters surrounded an immigration van outside a Croydon reporting centre for several hours in an attempt to stop two asylum seekers from being detained. They were eventually overpowered by police in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

A woman who took part in both Tuesday and Thursday’s actions said it is crucial that activists keep up momentum. “I think it’s really important to get on the street and to show the government and the far right that there’s a physical presence that wants to support refugees and asylum seekers,” she said. “We can use this moment to build community and to build even more on anti-raids networks that already exist.”

Activists used Lime bikes to block the coach, as well as deflating its tyres. Photo: Charlotte England

An organiser from Revoke, a refugee charity based in east London, said he had been working with several people inside the hotel. “Most of them are quite engaged with the community and have a very good connection with the people here,” he said.

All eight asylum seekers are believed to have appealed the decision to move them. Some were rejected for “silly” reasons, the Revoke organiser said, others, with strong claims, simply didn’t hear back from the Home Office. 

Salah – not his real name – an Egyptian asylum seeker living in the hotel, said he had challenged the decision to move him, but had all but given up hope and packed his bag to leave before he saw the resistance outside the hotel this morning.

The Revoke organiser said it was crucial to prevent the removals, given conditions on board the barge. “The Bibby Stockholm is not a safe place for anyone, especially those who have mental health issues,” he said. “It’s a boat in a port in the middle of the sea. All of them want to be here, engaged with the community, and now they’re moving them to a different place. It’s inhumane.”

Just days after the Bibby Stockholm opened in Dorset last summer it had to close again, when a deadly bacteria was found on board. It has been described as a floating “prison” by those already staying there, and in December, Leonard Farruku, an Albanian asylum seeker, killed himself while living on board. Farruku’s sister told the Telegraph he said he was being treated “like an animal” on the barge before he died. 

It’s unclear why the government is moving asylum seekers from London to the Bibby Stockholm, and how it has chosen who to take. Unlike hotel evictions last year, where asylum seekers were forced to move so that hotels could be reopened to tourists when government contracts expired, the hotel in Peckham isn’t being emptied and only some residents have been targeted for removal.

“They want asylum seekers to suffer,” the organiser from Revoke said, “so that they talk to the media and to people who are planning to come to seek asylum in this country and tell them that they have a bad experience, ‘try to find another country’.”

Some activists fear removal to the Bibby Stockholm – while bad in itself – may also make it easier to deport people to Rwanda.

Yesterday, asylum seekers in Wembley, in north-west London, were “tricked”, activists said, into boarding a bus to the barge by immigration workers who said that moving would help their asylum claims and resisting would leave them homeless. Some people were even promised better conditions at the Bibby Stockholm, with hotel staff allegedly describing life on board as a “sunny”, “five-star” experience.

In Peckham, asylum seekers are well integrated into the local community. Many of those slated for removal on Thursday volunteer for local charities, while others are studying in the area, making it easier for them to draw on their networks to resist the hostile environment. 

“Peckham has a really good history of resistance,” a Lewisham Anti-Raids organiser said. “People are really switched on … There’s been a lot of awareness and organising over the last week and I think people are really keen to make sure that the community feels like it’s resisting.”

Another activist said he felt like the Tories’ actions had backfired. “The government’s deliberate attempts – politicised attempts – to show they’re tough on immigration [has resulted in] a hugely raised awareness of the raids and of these transfers to the Bibby Stockholm,” he said. 

The Lewisham Anti-Raids organiser described increased “information sharing” in the last few weeks. “People know what the vans look like, they know what time these raids happen,” she said. “People are really upskilling.”

Direct actions against immigration raids are ongoing this week. Activist groups like Soas Detainee Support, Black Lives Matter and Lewisham Anti-Raids are organising to block hotel removals and maintaining a constant presence outside Lunar House, London’s largest immigration reporting centre.

Activists believe asylum seekers at hotels in Hounslow, Heathrow and Luton could be targeted next. For the time being, however, at least one coach doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

Deflated coach tyres. Photo: Charlotte England

In a statement posted on X on Thursday afternoon, the home secretary James Cleverly said: “We will not allow this small group of students, posing for social media, to deter us from doing what is right for the British public.”

But activists said they won’t be defeated. “I think we can win,” one person told Novara Media. “But winning is going to depend on people coming out. We’re going to have to actually put our money where our mouths are.”

The Lewisham Anti-Raids organiser said: “The more awareness we have, the more mobilisation there is in communities, the more opportunities we have to resist.

“The more they [immigration enforcement] keep coming back, the bigger the resistance seems to be getting.”

A statement from the Metropolitan Police said: “A number of people have been arrested for offences including obstruction of the highway, and one for a racially aggravated public order offence. They have all been taken into custody.”

Charlotte England is head of articles at Novara Media.

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