As more details about disturbing conditions at military barracks housing asylum seekers come to light, charities reiterate their calls for closing the sites. It is reported that volunteers at the barracks had to sign confidentiality agreements underpinned by the Official Secrets Act. Incorrect age assessment conclusions have severe consequences for young asylum seekers. An inquiry into the Windrush compensation scheme has been launched by the Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee.

The Guardian has revealed that volunteers who provide support to asylum seekers detained in military barracks in Kent had to sign confidentiality agreements underpinned by the Official Secrets Act. The act is designated to protect national security and violations of it are punishable by prison. The forms have been handed out by the private firm managing the site on behalf of the Home Office following reports on the disturbing conditions at the site, including insufficient access to food and water, unsanitary dorms, hunger strikes, suicide attempts, unrest and weekly medical emergencies among residents. Just last week an Iranian man staying at the military barracks was hospitalised after attempting to take his own life. According to Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action there is a need for more rather than less public awareness, she stated: “The Official Secrets Act is intended to protect state secrets and national security, not the government’s treatment of people who have arrived in the UK seeking sanctuary.” Following these latest developments, charities reiterate their calls for closing the sites and provide humane accommodation for people arriving in the UK. The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said the revelations raised “serious questions about what the Home Office have to hide” and that there was a need for “transparency and accountability in place throughout the immigration system.”

In a submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s review of the United Kingdom’s periodic report for the 88th pre-session, Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that unaccompanied children face significant obstacles in accessing protection which is primarily caused by poor age assessments. Referring to accounts by organisations working with the target group, HRW states “We heard repeated cases of children wrongly being identified as adults, as well as widespread systemic issues described as a “culture of disbelief” within the Home Office.” Cases reported by the Guardian highlight the negative consequences poor age assessment has on the enjoyment of a range of rights. A 13-year-old Afghan national was denied to attend school and study for GCSEs after going through age assessment. He was estimated to be 16 and deemed too old to attend school. Five years later, local authorities adjusted the decision. However, his way to university remained blocked as he was missing crucial years of schooling. In a different case, a Kurdish national who said he was 17 when arriving in the UK was estimated 28, forcing him to withdraw from his language course at college. Kalyani McCarthy, a Red Cross worker says these are not singular cases and that the situation, while complicated, could be handled better: “There are concerns around safeguarding, not wanting to put older people in classes with children, but that can be really detrimental for young people who are going through these stressful experiences.”

On 18 November, the Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee said it would launch an inquiry into the Windrush compensation scheme, following growing concerns about its effectivity. Almost two years after the scheme was introduced, many people pushed into financial difficulties by Home Office errors are still waiting for compensation. By the end of October, £1.6m had been paid out to 196 people. Originally it was estimated that the government would have to spend between £200m and £570m and that thousands would apply. In August, nine law firms assisting people to make claims wrote to the Home Secretary that the scheme was failing to provide access to justice and was worsening applicants’ trauma. A former senior Home Office employee on the team responsible for the compensation scheme, Alexandra Ankrah, resigned earlier this year because she found the scheme “systematically racist” and “not supportive of people who have been victims”. An assessment by the equality watchdog Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) finds that the experiences of the Windrush generation were “foreseeable and avoidable” and suggests “a clear failure by the Home Office to develop and implement immigration policies that were fit for purpose for the Black people affected by them.”

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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.