Inquiry into use of barracks to house asylum seekers

An inquiry is to be carried out into the Home Office’s use of sites used to accommodate asylum seekers, such as military barracks.

MPs and peers from the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on immigration detention agreed to proceed with the inquiry at a private meeting on 17th March.  The cross-party group is due to publish its initial findings before the summer recess and hopes its findings can inform parliamentary discussions regarding the Home Office’s new plans for asylum seekers.

The use of large-scale, institutional sites by the Home Office has been described by members of the group as “quasi-detention”, saying that although the likes of Napier barracks in Folkestone are not technically immigration detention the accommodation shares many features with it.

The group says these include isolation from the wider community and related difficulties accessing medical and legal support, visible security measures such as use of patrols and barbed wire, reduced levels of privacy and restriction of movement such as signing in and signing out and curfews.

The chair of the APPG, Alison Thewliss MP, said: “The recent report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) on this type of contingency accommodation underlined serious deficiencies in provision.  The group has written on a number of occasions to ministers regarding concerns such as ineffective safeguarding, unsanitary conditions, inadequate social distancing and many other issues besides”.

“Responses – when they have arrived – have fallen way short and failed to provide any sort of reassurance.  However, it remains a significant concern that people are being transferred to Napier barracks given the nature of the complaints that many have made regarding the conditions there.  Given the serious nature of the concerns raised, the group feels it is appropriate to undertake an inquiry to properly examine the conditions that people are being asked to endure”.

A Home Office spokesperson said that asylum seekers at Napier have the same access to health services as other members of the community and denied that a curfew has operated at the barracks.

This news comes as a least 10 new legal challenges have been launched by asylum seekers transferred to Napier over the last few days.  It is thought that approximately 45 asylum seekers have been moved there since 9th April after the Home Office moved out the last of the previous group accommodated there this month.  Up to 400 people have been housed at Napier since it opened as asylum accommodation in September 2020, half of who contracted Covid, following an outbreak there.

Many of the new residents at Napier are understood to have arrived in the UK on small boats in recent weeks.  Some have been identified as victims of torture and potential victims of trafficking.  The new legal actions focus on claims that the Home Office has failed to carry out vulnerability assessments and that some of those accommodated there should not be there due to their past experiences.

Founder of the charity Care4Calais which provides support to many asylum seekers including past and present residents of Napier, Clare Moseley, said: “The accommodation at Napier is not fit for purpose and I’m delighted the APPG is investigating.  It has been nothing short of shocking to see people moved back to this camp”.

“We’ve spoken to multiple residents who have vulnerabilities that suggest they should not be in this oppressive environment, including victims of torture and trafficking and an age-disputed minor.  It’s incredible that the Home Office has learned no lessons from what has gone before.  Penally camp in Wales was closed and Napier should be closed too”.

A spokesperson for the charity Medical Justice, which provides the secretariat for the APPG said: “Given the physical and psychological harm so many asylum seekers suffered by being place at Napier barracks, it is unconscionable and frankly frightening that the Home Office is doing it all over again”.

“Our independent clinicians have assessed asylum seekers who were at Napier barracks and found the deterioration they experienced there disturbingly similar to the deterioration usually associated with immigration detention.  Asylum seekers who survived torture, trafficking and other serious trauma before reaching the UK reported experiencing suicidal thoughts for the first time at Napier barracks”.

The high court will hear claims from lawyers representing asylum seekers previously accommodated at Napier that their treatment at the barracks by the Home Office was unlawful.

A Home Office spokesperson, said: “While pressure on the asylum system remains we will continue to make use of Napier barracks.  Asylum seekers are staying in safe, suitable, Covid compliant conditions, where they receive three nutritious meals a day.

“Napier has previously housed army personnel – it it wrong to say they are not adequate for asylum seekers, and we have made a significant number of improvements to the site following feedback from residents and inspectors.  Our new plan for immigration will reform the broken asylum system, allowing us to welcome people through safe and legal routes, while preventing abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it”.