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Dorset’s Fight Against the Far Right

The far right descended on Portland to ignite racial tensions over the arrival of the Bibby Stockholm — but were defeated by a grassroots campaign of solidarity with asylum seekers.

An anti-racist demonstrations in solidarity with asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The Bibby Stockholm, docked on the island town of Portland, Dorset, has been embroiled in controversy since the announcement that it would be used to house asylum seekers by then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman in early 2023.

The barge witnessed the initial boarding of 50 male asylum seekers on Monday 7 August 2023, only to be evacuated that Thursday after test results indicated the presence of the deadly Legionnaires’ disease in the water supply. Asylum seekers were returned to the boat in October 2023. Since then, the number of residents, or ‘service users’, as the government terms them, has steadily increased. Originally designed for 222 people, the Bibby Stockholm now houses around 300 men.

The arrival of the vessel ignited a flurry of activity in Portland. Within a month of its opening, 22 protests had been planned, including by Neo-Nazi group Patriotic Alternative. A ‘No To The Barge’ campaign (NTTB), primarily propagated through a Facebook group of the same name, became a hotbed of racist sentiment. United by their hostility to asylum seekers, NTTB brought together a coalition including small business owners, a Hunger Games-loving UKIP spokesman, conspiracy theorists, and 5G obsessives.

In June 2023, threatening letters signed ‘Britain First’ were sent to politicians and local businesses, warning them not to support the asylum seekers. Later in the year, local journalists were threatened at their homes for running an exposé of far-right organising around the issue.

Far-right anger, however, is not the only response that has greeted the barge’s new residents. A different local group has also been organising to mitigate the scheme’s worst aspects and ensure that the far-right cannot leverage the plight of these men, cynically exploited in the Tories’ ongoing culture war surrounding small boats.

Recognition, Not Reaction

Early on, a small group of activists – including Giovanna Lewis, a socialist councillor who recently resigned from Labour – recognised that the situation was a potential tinderbox for reactionary sentiment. On learning of the boat’s impending arrival in the town, the group reached out to Stand Up to Racism Dorset (SUTRD) for guidance. They were advised that when the far-right threatens to gain traction, engaging the community first is paramount.

In line with this advice, in May 2023, those activists organised a public meeting to address community concerns. Far-right activists, purportedly not from the town, arrived with ‘Stop the Invasion’ placards. They were allowed to participate in the discussion, with the chair ensuring they neither dominated nor led the conversation. While some may view this as heretical to the principle of no-platforming, the goal of the meeting was not to stifle concerns, but to identify potential seeds of far-right support and counter them.

‘Everyone was against the barge,’ says Lewis of the meeting. For most, she explains, that was ‘because it was inhumane; for the other camp, it was because “we don’t want all these dangerous men here.” People literally said, “Lock up your daughters.’” She describes one woman seeking to further inflame tensions by setting up a ‘support group’ for women scared of being raped by the asylum seekers. ‘When you haven’t experienced it before, it’s quite alarming how quickly things can escalate into this kind of craziness.’

Mobilising a community in such challenging circumstances requires radical trust that issues can be openly discussed, and that that community can rise to the challenge imposed by a government invested in their failure. This approach proved successful: evidently outnumbered, the far-right’s presence was hugely diminished at the next meeting. Instead, many locals came to volunteer their time and skills to begin organising activities for the men on Bibby Stockholm.

The next thing, Lewis explains, ‘Eight of us women were sat around somebody’s kitchen table with a cup of tea, and we started to think, “Well, okay, what do we do? How do we organise ourselves?”’ From that meeting of women, many of whom hadn’t previously met, the Portland Global Friendship Group (PGFG) was born. It has since grown to count 120 activists.

Portland Life

The island town of Portland, which has a relatively deprived population of 12,000, is four miles from neighbouring Weymouth and attached to the mainland by a single road. Despite the beautiful surroundings, it seems singularly designed to evoke feelings of claustrophobia both by and for the additional presence of hundreds of men who are eminently aware they stand out in a town where 97 percent of the population is white.

In advance of the barge opening, a Home Office representative claimed that as part of wider lessons on ‘British social behaviours and cultural norms’, they would ‘explain to the asylum seekers that a lot of young men in groups can be intimidating’. Yet the only means for the men to embark and disembark from the Bibby Stockholm is via a bus that operates once an hour between 7am and 10pm. The bus is accessed via a chain-fenced enclosure topped with barbed and wire drops off and collects them from the town centre.

When talking about how this operation looks to local residents, Dan*, an asylum seeker living on the Bibby Stockholm, says: ‘[They must think] these are the gangs we’ve heard about on the news, the plague on this country… because we all have to move around together, we appear like a gang.’ The infrastructure ostensibly established to aid integration in fact risks exacerbating the tensions the far-right seeks to exploit.

Life on the boat, meanwhile, is difficult. The government plans to house 500 people, with each often-windowless room intended to accommodate from two to six individuals, likely strangers, in bunk beds. With 300 residents, it already feels incredibly cramped. Residents spend a lot of time in their rooms and are ‘living all day every day in front of someone you don’t know,’ as Dan puts it. Nasir*, another resident on the barge, observes that it’s difficult to build community because ‘you’re with people who don’t know where they’ll be day to day or where they’re going to be going.’

The result, Dan says, is that the asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm live in ‘certain uncertainty’. They could be moved across the barge or even across the country at a moment’s notice. ‘I don’t know when it’s going to happen,’ he adds. ‘All I know is it will happen.’

The mental health toll of all this is predictable, and highlighted by the suicide of one of the residents at the end of last year. The men who spoke to Tribune felt another suicide was inevitable. ‘You see the dimming of the eyes in some people,’ Dan says. ‘If living here is worse than dying in your own country, then what does that say?’

And yet, Moussa*, a third resident, looked forward to the freedoms he would enjoy in the UK: ‘You can go out and oppose the monarchy. We can’t even oppose a single soldier.’ A journalist by trade, he has fled violent persecution at home. He hopes to continue his work here and plans to join the National Union of Journalists.

Building Community

Recognising underlying community concerns, both PGFG organisers and Bibby Stockholm residents have emphasised the importance of engagement. ‘The locals’ perception isn’t always positive,’ Dan notes. ‘[We knew] if we could speak to them, they’d see us differently.’ The solution, then, moving forward, was clear: foster dialogue to highlight shared humanity amid challenges, rather than being seen as intruders.

Initially, PGFG activists assembled welcome packs for the men aboard the Bibby Stockholm, containing toiletries and contact details for activists. Security passed them on to the first group of men but from then on refused. PGFG managed to establish connections with new arrivals via existing Bibby Residents and WhatsApp groups.

PGFG then organised a range of activities, including yoga and running clubs, English lessons, and community clean-ups, along with historical tours to learn about the area. This gave the men, who are legally barred from employment, something positive to do. It also allowed community members to interact with them, recognising them as ordinary people deserving of empathy and solidarity.

Nasir has been particularly engaged with the group, helping connect new arrivals with activists and organising an English conversation club on the boat. He highlights the indispensable role of PGFG, recounting instances where the group promptly addressed residents’ needs, such as arranging an additional bed sheet for him after Bibby staff refused. ‘If [PGFG] didn’t exist, we would be very deprived,’ he says.

As evidence of the impact the campaign has had in the town, Nasir also speaks of a local men’s group he’s attended, which is unaffiliated with PGFG. The men there discuss issues with family, work, and ordinary human unhappiness. Despite all he’s been through, Nasir feels for these men and sees that despite their different backgrounds they share everyday struggles. When he told his own story at the group, describing what he’d experienced and how he missed his family, the local men responded: ‘We are your family, we are your support.’

Who Benefits?

After clashes at meetings and protests met with counter-protests by SUTRD and the PGFG, a subgroup formed within NTTB, ‘Portland Independent Councillors’, which aimed to run candidates against any councillors deemed supportive of asylum seekers. Lacking community support, internal tensions quickly flared. When organisers began publicly denouncing each other as ‘far-right’, recruitment efforts faltered, and they failed to stand a single candidate in Portland in May.

Only Alex Bailey, the NTTB group admin, ran in May’s elections, but not in Portland. He stood as an independent in the Littlemore ward of Weymouth. Out of 6 candidates, he received the fewest votes.

Still, it would be wrong to consider tensions settled in Portland. So with life onboard bleak by design, locals being drawn into conflict, and reports stating that the barge costs £46 million more than housing asylum seekers in hotels, the question is this: who benefits?

As ever in Tory Britain there are those profiting from the misfortune. The vessel itself is owned by a subsidiary of the Bibby Line Group, a company whose founder, John Bibby, co-owned slave ships before establishing the Bibby Line in 1807 following Britain’s abolition of slavery. The government has enlisted the services of Australian company Corporate Travel Management (CTM) to oversee the boat’s day-to-day operations, a two-year contract worth £1.6 billion reportedly awarded without a competitive tender process or scrutiny.

CTM, in turn, has subcontracted to Landry and Kling (LK), a Miami-based company that touts in a press release that they ‘advanced the idea of using cruise ships as dockside “floating hotels”.’ LK previously collaborated with CTM to accommodate 2000 Ukrainian refugees on boats in Scotland, establishing the precedent for the Bibby Stockholm. The company frames this as ‘[expanding] into new markets to solidify its position as a world leader in sourcing and managing complex and long-term vessel charters.’

Portland Port itself is owned by Langham Industries, a family firm reported to be generating £2.5 million from docking the Bibby Stockholm. The firm has donated over £70,000 to UKIP and has numerous ties to senior Tories – including Rishi Sunak.

The Bigger Picture

From this private money-making to the efforts of activists to build compassion rather than reaction, Portland is a microcosm of broader societal challenges taking place in modern Britain, where humanitarian and internationalist imperatives often clash with profit motives. As increasing numbers of people are torn from their homes by poverty, war, repression, and environmental catastrophe, some still look to the UK for safety or a chance for a better life. Yet a failure of leadership at the national level leaves communities to grapple with the consequences on their own.

Despite all the complexities and adversities, grassroots initiatives like the PGFG offer us hope. With a radical belief that their community could take on the challenge and a willingness to do the difficult, sometimes thankless organising, common sense has – for now – won out.