Hundreds of asylum seekers are on hunger strike protesting conditions in the former army barracks in Kent. The Home Office is ignoring complaints from asylum seekers at Penally military camp over food quality and conditions. UK’s largest detention and removal centre Brook House near Gatwick airport has been temporarily closed following a COVID outbreak among staff. A petition has been launched to stop development and shut down Yarl’s Wood detention centre. A report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration reveals that the Home Office has been using untrained staff in deportation appeals. Former Home Office minister Caroline Nokes warns that the government’s “inhuman” approach to immigration will only cause further problems and end up costing the taxpayer more money.

350 out of the 400 men held at the Napier barracks site near Folkestone, Kent have been on hunger strike since 11 January protesting lack of information in relation to their asylum claims, overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic, and poor hygiene at the facility. The former army barracks have been used for temporary accommodation since September. Founder of the NGO Care4Calais, Clare Moseley stated: “We’re extremely worried about the asylum seekers held in Napier barracks. The conditions they are being kept in are cramped, stressful and dangerous. Asylum seekers have fled terrifying dangers, wars and persecution. They need support and protection – instead our government is treating them with cruelty”. Reportedly, the Home Office is ignoring complaints from asylum seekers housed at the Penally military camp in Pembrokeshire, Wales over cold and cramped conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic as well as poor quality of food. A large insect was found in a meal served at the facility and documentation released to media outlets reveals meals of “poorly cooked boiled eggs and chicken with feathers still attached”.

A temporary closure of the  Brook House detention and removal centre, near Gatwick airport, due to a number of staff testing positive for COVID-19 has been confirmed by the Home Office. While no information of the number of staff or detainees infected was released, the Home Office stated that a “very small number” of detainees had been moved to Colnbrook immigration removal centre near Heathrow. Legal policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Chai Patel accused the government of: “playing Russian roulette with public health” by maintaining detention during the third wave of the pandemic, and stated: “Priti Patel was told at the beginning of the pandemic by experts that detention centres were Covid pumps – unsafe for staff, for migrants and for the communities around them”.  The NGO Care4Calais has launched a petition in support of a legal challenge by a local resident to stop development and shut down the “infamous” Yarl’s Wood detention centre. The organisation underlines the risks during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and states: “Yarl’s Wood has a grim history as a detention centre. Its record of hunger strikes, failed inspections and sexual abuse allegations speak of a place where the most basic human rights of refugees are not respected. It should have seen it closed long ago. Instead private firm Serco still has the contract to run the site”.

The report ‘An inspection of the Home Office Presenting Officer function (November 2019 – October 2020)’ released by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration in January 2021, reveals “serious concerns” from stakeholders over the quality of training. According to the report deportation cases: “were treated as a priority, as they involve public protection issues. As such, they were supposed to be allocated to POs only after they had gained some experience and completed the deportation training. However, inspectors found that some deportation cases had been assigned in error to POs who had not received the training”. Further stakeholders highlighted POs’ “lack of cross-examination skills, which in their view led to ‘[a] style of questioning and approach [that was] unnecessarily aggressive, dismissive and unprofessional’ and a failure to consider the vulnerability of appellants and witnesses”.

Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North and former immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes is condemning the approach to the asylum system of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, Chris Philp and Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Nokes defined the current policies as “brutal” and stated that they risk “whipping up an unpleasant reaction to some very vulnerable people”. Further, the former minister underlined that future ministers stand to inherit legal and financial problems of the current administration and added critique over the Windrush Scandal, the Home Office ministers’ references to the legal representatives who challenge deportations as “activist lawyers”, and the lack of commitments to global refugee resettlement.

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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.