In September 2020, the government decided to start using two former army barracks in Wales and Kent to house asylum seekers, most of whom arrived in small boats crossing the channel. The barracks, Napier (Kent) and Penally (Wales), can house up to 665 people.
General government policy is to house asylum seekers within communities whilst they wait for a decision on their asylum claim. Where housing in communities is not possible, the government started putting people in barracks as “temporary solutions.” The solutions, it turns out, were not so temporary, as some residents are kept at the barracks for weeks, if not months, on end.
The barracks are managed by private contractor Clearsprings. Ever since their opening, they have been criticised for their living conditions, including overcrowding, limited access to healthcare and legal advice, as well as abominable food and sanitary services.
The pandemic has exacerbated these circumstances. Social distancing is impossible in the barracks; people sleep in bunk beds separated only by a sheet. There have been rumours of curfews and limitations on residents’ movement, which the Home Office steadily deny, stating that the only restrictions in place for the residents are the COVID-19 related restrictions in force across the nation.
To make matters worse, a recently-leaked report shows that Public Health England warned against using dormitories in army barracks to house asylum seekers months ago. This advice was ignored, with the residents bearing the consequences. At Napier barracks, residents with negative COVID-19 test results were made to stay in the same room as those who tested positive. Add do that the lack of access to a GP and other standard healthcare provisions, and a COVID outbreak seemed unavoidable. The inevitable ultimately happened, and in January, as many as one out of four residents at Napier tested positive with the coronavirus.
After the outbreak, the government released most, but not all, residents from Napier barracks. 63 asylum seekers remain at Napier today. Trapped in the camps, their mental health is deteriorating. Many of them have lived through trauma either in their home country or during their journey to the UK, and are therefore extremely vulnerable.
Six asylum seekers brought a case against the government, arguing that conditions at the barracks are inhumane. Their case was heard in the High Court last week, during which the Home Office conceded that it was arguable that the use of Napier barracks to house refugees is unlawful and in breach of human rights. Judge Martin Chamberlain ruled for the asylum seekers, and a two-day judicial review hearing of the government policy and the circumstances in the barracks is set to begin on 13 April.
The atrocious situation in the barracks is not an isolated event. Rather, it is symptomatic of the way this government has treated migrants all along. The outsourcing of services to private contractors, the segregation of migrants, and the demonisation of those seeking to enter the UK via unconventional routes are not new policies. The hostile environment’s aim, after all, is to make the UK as inhospitable as possible so as to make migrants leave the country voluntarily. Its methods inherently lead to stigmatisation and segregation, and in this case go as far as putting the migrants in objectively abhorrent conditions in the middle of a global pandemic.
If you want to take action in the meantime, sign Freedom from Torture’s petition to empty the barracks here, write to your MP to highlight the issue and help spread awareness of that is going on.
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