As it has emerged that the Home Office is attempting to silence volunteers who have access to the army barracks currently being used to house asylum seekers, the shadow home secretary feels that the barracks should be open to proper processes for transparency and accountability.
Volunteers have been informed that they must sign a confidentiality agreement underpinned by the Official Secrets Act if they want to access Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, and also the barracks at Penally, Pembrokeshire, which are being used to house hundreds of asylum seekers. The sites are being run by the private firm Clearsprings Ready Homes.
Following a series of damning accounts of conditions inside the Kent site where there have been hunger strikes, suicide attempts, unrest, and regular medical emergencies, forms have been handed out.
The Home Office is facing calls to close the barracks following significant criticism from Labour, Liberal Democrats and major charities operating in the asylum refugee sector. They have all condemned the inappropriate use of the Official Secrets Act, which is designed principally to protect matters of national security.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow home secretary said: “These concerning revelations raise serious questions about what the Home Office have to hide. There should be proper processes for transparency and accountability in place throughout the immigration system”.
Liberal Democrat homes affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said an independent inspection should take place at the barracks, “Volunteers seeking to help vulnerable people should not be forced to keep silent through an abuse of the Official Secrets Act. Conditions in asylum facilities are not a matter of national security”.
“These reports show the need for an urgent independent inspection of the facilities and of the treatment of asylum seekers housed at Napier barracks. The Home Office must be completely transparent about what is happening behind closed doors”.
Chair of the Commons home affairs select committee,Yvette Cooper, which is conducting an inquiry into the recent rise in the number of Channel crossings said: “Users of asylum accommodation are often very vulnerable people, including torture survivors and individuals suffering PTSD. Reports of self harm and suicide attempts are extremely distressing and reiterate the need for residents to be able to easily and safely discuss concerns about their physical and mental health with support specialists and trained volunteers”.
Asked about the use of the confidentiality agreement, the Home Office said that there was an agreement with staff to provide asylum seekers with privacy and confidentiality “as would be expected”. The department said that it took the wellbeing of asylum seekers extremely seriously.
Charities and lawyers however, who ave accessed the Kent site have repeatedly raised concerns about the unsuitable conditions.
Chief executive of Refugee Action, Stephen Hale, called for the barracks to be closed down. He said: “Home Office ministers should focus on fixing the inhumane conditions in asylum accommodation rather than sanctioning the gagging of volunteers.
“These squalid barracks are detention in all but name and are not suitable for housing vulnerable human beings, especially in the middle of a pandemic. They must be closed down as soon as possible”.
Director of advocacy at the Refugees Council, Lisa Doyle said: “We’re shocked by reports that the Home Office feels the need to employ the Officials Secrets Act to prevent volunteers from talking about what they can see at Napier Barracks.
“The residents of the barracks have fled war, persecution and trauma and must be treated with dignity and respect. If the Home Office is doing this why insist on this type of confidentiality agreement”.