Trade unions call on Queen’s to scrap contract with company running asylum seeker barges

Queen's University Belfast. Photo by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Queen's University Belfast. Photo by Claire Simpson, The Detail

LEADING trade unions have called on Queen’s University Belfast to scrap its travel contract with an Australian company which operates barges to house asylum seekers in the UK.

Corporate Travel Management (CTM), which has been running travel services for the university since the start of July, also has a reported £1.6bn contract to manage UK asylum accommodation ships, including the Bibby Stockholm, docked off the coast of Dorset.

The use of such barges has been strongly criticised by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, and refugee charity Care4Calais, which said housing “any human being in a ‘quasi floating prison’ like the Bibby Stockholm is inhumane”.

The Detail reported last month that Queen’s academic Professor John Barry had asked the university to end its contract with CTM, saying that the decision to appoint the company “leaves a bad taste in the mouth but particularly amongst us who are working on asylum and migration issues”.

Trade unions Unite, NIPSA, and the University and College Union (UCU), have now written to the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s, Ian Greer, asking the university to “sever its contract with CTM”.

Since July 1, CTM has been responsible for handling staff flights, trains and other travel.

The university spends more than £7 million a year on travel.

In their letter, the unions asked for an investigation into how the contract was awarded “and if there was prior knowledge of CTM’s involvement in the mandatory detention of those seeking asylum in the UK”.

They also called for a review of the university’s procurement regulations to ensure any contracted company meets “ethical as well legal and financial minimum benchmarks and standards”.

“These ships are being condemned and are receiving reams of negative media attention about the ethics of the initiative and the disgraceful conditions on board,” the letter read.

Queen’s procurement guidance states that the university is committed “to carrying out procurement activities in an environmentally, socially, ethically and economically responsible manner and to enter into agreements and contracts with suppliers that share and adhere to its vision”.

The unions said if the university continues to use CTM “it will become a stain on the reputation of Queen’s in terms of our commitment to ethical procurement, the supply chain Code of Conduct, and our commitment to the UN SDGs (sustainable development goals)”.

“This business agreement also risks breaching research ethics, and also trust between researchers and research participants from migrant and refugee communities, putting future research at risk,” the letter read.

The unions said the contract is undermining positive initiatives at Queen’s, including its scholarships for asylum seekers.

A spokeswoman for Queen’s confirmed it had received the letter.

The university previously said it would ask CTM about the issues highlighted by Professor Barry.

“We are meeting with representatives from CTM in the coming weeks and will raise this issue with them,” a spokeswoman said.

CTM had not responded to a request for comment at time of publication.

An anti-racism rally in Belfast in 2021. Photo by Kelvin Boyes, Press Eye

An anti-racism rally in Belfast in 2021. Photo by Kelvin Boyes, Press Eye

The company is contracted to run the Bibby Stockholm barge, which has been beset by issues since it first began operating last month.

The barge, moored in Portland, Dorset, was evacuated four days after the first asylum seekers were brought onboard following the discovery of potentially deadly legionella bacteria.

The vessel has been empty since the evacuation.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has raised “serious fire and operational safety concerns” over the 220-bedroom barge.

A joint letter to the Home Office from 39 people who were briefly housed on the barge revealed that one asylum seeker attempted suicide.

In the letter, the asylum seekers described the barge as an “unsafe, frightening, and isolated place.”

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