In a landmark ruling the immigration court on 14 April found the Home Office in breach of human rights law in a case related to deaths in immigration detention. On the same day the Court of Appeal found that the Home Secretary acted unlawfully in failing to obtain medical evidence regarding the torture claims of individuals detained under immigration powers in prison. Just after transferring the last residents out of unsuitable and controversial Napier barracks in Kent, the Home Office decided to move in new asylum seekers for a period of at least 60 to 90 days. This happens amid a High Court hearing to establish whether placing people at the squalid facility in former army barracks breaches their human rights and an inquiry by MPs into the “quasi-detention” of asylum seekers by the Home Office in facilities like Napier barracks. French authorities stated on 10 April that 84 people in four boats in distress en route to the UK had been rescued on the Channel. In Calais six makeshift camps were dismantled leaving almost 300 people with no alternative shelter.

On 14 April the immigration court ruled the Home Office failed to discharge its legal obligation to assist inquests into deaths in detention by identifying and securing evidence from potential witnesses. In breach of human rights law, the Home Office decided to deport a key witness to the death of the 34-year-old Nigerian man, Oscar Okwurime, detained in Harmondsworth immigration removal centre. Further, the court ruled the Home Office’s policy on deaths in immigration detention unlawful on the grounds that it does not actively seek to identify, and take steps to secure the evidence from detainees if there is reason to believe they may have relevant information. The court also declared unlawful the absence of a policy for Home Office caseworkers on how to exercise immigration powers in a case concerning a witness to a death in custody. The jury of the inquest hearing in November 2020 found Mr Okwurime died after having a stroke and that neglect and “multiple failures to adhere to healthcare policy” by staff in the removal centre contributed to his death. The Court of Appeal on the same day unanimously ruled that Home Secretary, Priti Patel acted unlawfully in failing to obtain medical information about the torture claims of two vulnerable immigration detainees who were detained under immigration powers in prison.

Following a COVID outbreak with half of the 400 residents falling sick, the closure of a similar facility in Pembrokeshire, and mounting evidence of the dire conditions in the Napier barracks, the Home Office recently concluded the transfer of people out of the camp. However, Clearsprings Ready Homes, the private contractor operating the site for the Home Office started moving new asylum seekers into Napier barracks on 9 April. A spokesperson from the Home Office stated: “We secured permission to use Napier barracks for 12 months and while pressure on the asylum system remains will continue to make use of the site”. According to a letter to newly arrived asylum seekers and people currently accommodated in hotels the Home Office anticipates that they will stay in the Napier barracks for a period of 60 to 90 days.

The transfer of asylum seekers to the Napier barracks happens amid legal and political scrutiny of the facility. In a hearing on 14 and 15 April a High Court judge heard evidence of squalid, ill-equipped and unsafe conditions at Napier barracks. The High Court in February highlighted its “prison-like” conditions when it granted six asylum seekers the permission to bring their challenge before the court on alleged unlawful conduct by the Home Secretary in housing asylum-seekers at the facility. According to the UK civil rights and judicial review litigation firm representing the claimants, the six argue: “that the accommodation was inadequate, a breach of the Defendant’s own policies” as well as the risk of: “a breach of the Human Rights Act, Articles 2, 3 and/or 8 of the ECHR, and that the asylum-seekers were unlawfully detained for a period due to a curfew and instructions not to go out at certain times, with a padlock and security guard at the gate”. Further, a report from the Crown Premises’ Fire Safety Inspectorate (CPFSI) from November 2020 obtained by the Independent reveals that smoke alarms were incorrectly placed, emergency evacuation drills had not been undertaken and there was “no effective fire safety measure” in place in Napier barracks, stating: “The failures to cooperate and to coordinate fire safety measures as necessary have led to a consequent failure to protect relevant people appropriately from serious risk”.

The Guardian has learned that the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Immigration Detention representing more than 35 UK parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, decided in March to launch an inquiry into the Home Office’s use of sites such as military barracks to accommodate asylum seekers. Members of the group have reportedly described the Home Office’s use of facilities like Napier barracks as “quasi-detention” with isolation from the wider community, difficulties accessing medical and legal support, visible security measures like patrols and barbed wire, reduced levels of privacy and restriction of movement such as signing in and signing out and curfews. MP and chair of APPG, Alison Thewliss further noted the recent report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) underlining serious deficiencies, based on visits in Napier and Penally camps.

According to French authorities the Regional Operational Monitoring and Rescue Centre (CROSS) Gris-Nez was informed of several boats in distress on the Channel on 10 April. A total of 84 people in four boats among them a toddler and several children were rescued by French ships. Strong currents, frequent fog and seasonal low water temperatures makes the journey across the channel dangerous. In 2020 more than 9,500 people attempted the crossing with six people confirmed dead and three others missing.

Makeshift camps housing 300 migrants were dismantled in Calais in a single day last week. No alternative shelter has been provided with local temperatures falling close to zero. According to a press release by eight aid organisations: “At least 126 tents, 170 tarpaulins and 77 blankets” were taken by the police. A report by Human Rights Observers (HRO) reveals that a total of 1058 evictions took place in 2020, 91 in Grande-Synthe and 967 in Calais. The report states that violence and police harassment are permanent in Grande-Synthe and Calais and concludes that the systematic and repeated use of forced evictions constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of a population group among the most vulnerable in France. NGOs have occupied the town hall square in Rennes to demand immediate shelter for 37 people including 24 children.

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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.