People at temporary refugee camps in the UK are being threatened that their asylum claims will be adversely affected if they ‘misbehave.’ Asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent, plead for help as Covid sweeps through the camp. Fouad Kakaei, an Iranian refugee, was sentenced for assisting unlawful immigration after being spotted steering two dinghies crossing the English Channel.

Statements have been collected alleging that staff employed by private contractors responsible for temporary accommodation, have been telling asylum seekers that their applications will be jeopardised if they speak out about conditions or go on hunger strike. One person was told that he would be added to a “blacklist” which would affect his claim if he complained about the food. Others stated that they were told their asylum claim would be impaired if they did not return to their accommodation by 10pm. Residents at the Napier barracks camp and the heavily criticized Penally barracks were warned about sharing concerns about their accommodation with media. Reportedly, between 30 and 40 individuals received a letter warning them to “behave at all times in a reasonable manner” and that people who are deemed to have breached the regulations would be reported to the Home Office “and a copy of this letter will be held on (..) file.”  Refugee groups are calling on the Home Office to stop private contractor’s from “weaponizing’ asylum applications.

Reportedly, 120 out of 400 asylum seeking men at the Napier barracks camp have tested positive for Covid-19. The Home Office has not confirmed the numbers of positive cases on the site. When details of the outbreak emerged, the immigration minister, Chris Philp, released a statement accusing some of the residents of “refusing to self-isolate or follow social distancing rules” or be tested. In an open letter, 200 asylum seekers held at the Napier barracks insists it is not possible to social distance in the camp and states: “When we are becoming more and more mentally vulnerable and physically ill due to the Covid outbreak in Napier Barracks, the Home Office, specifically its secretary, Priti Patel, and the minister for immigration, Chris Philp, are intentionally ignoring us and trying their best to cover up the disaster which is happening in this army camp.” The letter describes the inadequate infrastructure and conditions of the camp, asking why the Home Office put 400 people in one place given the current health crisis. The outbreak follows repeated warnings from humanitarian organisations and healthcare professionals over the significant risks posed by Covid-19 at the site, which has been dogged by allegations of overcrowding and poor conditions. Freedom from Torture have launched a petition calling for the closure of these camps. Reportedly, 100 asylum seekers who tested negative for virus will be transferred to hotels to self-isolate.

Fouad Kakaei was spotted at sea, piloting dinghies bound for the UK on two occasions in 2019. He appeared before the Canterbury Crown Court on Thursday and plead guilty to two charges of assisting unlawful immigration. While the judge accepted that he had a “well found fear of persecution” in his home country and was exploited, it underlined that Kakaei had nonetheless played a “significant role” by steering the boats. Kakaei’s defence counsel, Aneurin Brewer, said Kakaei had no financial motive for either offence and paid for his journey along with all the others. Brewer stated, “He said he did so because nobody else could do it. He said the engine was problematic and he didn’t wish to die at sea.” Brewer also stated that his client was not responsible for arranging these crossings “and so he is not responsible for the overloading of these vessels”. Kakaei was jailed for two years and two months, much of which he has already spent on remand. He was told that after serving his sentence he will likely face deportation from the UK. The Home Office’s Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O’Mahoney said Kakaei’s actions “risked lives” and the prosecution “put a stop to that cycle of criminality”.

Last week the two ringleaders of the people-smuggling gang responsible for the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people who suffocated in a sealed refrigeration container as they were transported across the Channel from France have received prison sentences of 27 and 20 years. Haulage company owner, Ronan Hughes, was sentenced to 20 years after pleading guilty last year to 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiring to bring people into the country unlawfully.  Co-conspirator, Gheorghe Nica, was found guilty last year of manslaughter and was sentenced to 27 years in prison. The lorry drivers, Eamonn Harrison and Maurice Robinson, who collected and transported the migrants from Northern France through Zeebrugge to a port in Essex, were sentenced to 18 years and 13 years and four months respectively, having previously plead guilty to manslaughter and people smuggling charges. The victims were 28 men, eight women and three children. Evidence of desperate attempts to escape the lorry and farewell messages to their relatives were found. The trial exposed a complex and lucrative operation which had brought Vietnamese people to the UK for years. Each passenger paid smugglers between £10,000- £13,000 to be brought from Northern France.

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 Photo: (CC) Jeff Djevdet, February 2016

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.