The dire conditions asylum seekers are facing at Napier barracks further deteriorate following a fire on 29 January. The High Court ruled that an asylum seeker must be urgently transferred out of the barracks, opening the door for more people to be rehoused. This comes as internal impact assessment documents from the Home Office show that it believed that more “generous” accommodation would “undermine public confidence in the asylum system”. The ‘Stansted 15’ group of anti-deportation activists prosecuted under counter-terror legislation for blocking an immigration removal flight have had their convictions quashed.

A fire broke out at the heavily criticised Napier barracks site near Folkestone in Kent last Friday afternoon. Kent police confirmed that there were no reported injuries but believe the fire was started deliberately. Fourteen men were arrested in connection. Heating and electricity in all but one of the blocks has been off since the incident, residents said on Sunday. Reportedly, the residents, many of whom have Covid-19, have been left without a doctor, in freezing conditions and have been forced to drink non-potable water from bathroom taps, as drinking water supplies have not been replenished. Charities reportedly attempted to provide warm blankets and food to the men but said they were turned away by police officers and staff. Residents at the barracks have said that their mental health is so poor that there had been multiple suicide and self-harm attempts.

On 2 February the High Court ruled that an asylum seeker and potential victim of trafficking housed at the Napier barracks must be urgently rehoused in alternative accommodation within 24 hours. The court heard evidence about the unsafe and insanitary conditions and the impact of the recent serious fire. Lawyers are making urgent court applications for at least four more asylum seekers from the site. The ruling comes as an urgent complaint is being lodged with the UN special rapporteur on the rights of migrants and others asking for urgent action to ensure the UK government complies with international law.

After more than 120 asylum seekers at Napier barracks have tested positive for corona virus, residents were banned from leaving the site and threatened with arrest if they did. Despite reassurances from the government that the site is not a detention centre,  video footage has emerged of police carrying an asylum seeker against his will back into the barracks and dropping him on the floor after he attempted to leave. Legal experts have questioned the police’s authority to use force in this manner. The video came to light only days after a photographer was arrested and questioned for seven hours after covering a protest at the Napier barracks, sparking significant concerns for the freedom of the press in the UK.

The former minister for immigration, Caroline Nokes has accused the Home Office of segregating asylum seekers “into a ghetto” in barracks and making the country appear “as difficult and inhospitable as possible”. Her criticism comes as internal documents of the Home Office reveal that asylum seekers were placed in barracks following fears that more “generous” accommodation would “undermine public confidence in the system.” Critics say the document shows ministers “pandering to prejudice” instead of combatting bigotry and hostility towards asylum seekers, along with jeopardising health for “political ends”. It has also emerged this week that the private company that manages the Napier and Penally barracks, Clearsprings Ready Homes, stands to earn up to £1bn over 10 years for its government work, delivering multimillion-pound benefits for its owner.

The Court of Appeal found “ (…) no case to answer” in its judgment handed down on 29 January quashing the convictions of a group of 15 activists known as the ‘Stansted 15’ who were prosecuted under counter terror laws for blocking a deportation flight from taking off at Stansted airport in 2017. The ruling came more than two years after the 15 protestors were convicted following a nine-week trial of endangering the safety of an aerodrome, an offence which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. It was the first time the terror-related offence, passed in 1990 in response to the Lockerbie bombing, had been used against peaceful protesters. The lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said: “The appellants should not have been prosecuted for the extremely serious offence under section 1(2)(b) of the 1990 Act because their conduct did not satisfy the various elements of the offence. Previously, UN human rights experts wrote to the UK government expressing concern over the application of “security and terrorism-related legislation to prosecute peaceful political protesters and critics of state policy.”

Ben Smoke, one of the ‘Stansted 15’ activists, wrote for the Guardian saying: “After four painfully uncertain years, the ordeal is over… But what we endured was nothing compared to those who find themselves at the sharpest end of the government’s “hostile environment”. He emphasized that people are still being swept up, brutalised and traumatized in the UK’s repugnant immigration system and said “Now more than ever, I’m determined to keep fighting to bring down the walls, to close the detention centres, and to stop deportation flights. Our appeal verdict served up a very small slice of justice, but those still caught up in the horrors of the hostile environment still wait for theirs.”

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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.