Asylum seekers who were formerly housed at Napier barracks won the right to challenge the use of the site in a full court hearing. It has emerged that the Home Office decided to house asylum seekers at Napier barracks despite several warnings, including health officials who said they were “not suitable”. A UK watchdog has visited the former army site this week and launched an investigation into asylum seeker housing provided by the Home Office.

Six asylum seekers who were formerly housed at Napier barracks in Kent have won the right to challenge the use of the site in a full hearing before court in April. The claimants argue that the Home Office is unlawfully accommodating people at the barracks, which are not “Covid-secure” as it is “impossible to socially distance”. According to the lawyers representing the claimants, who are survivors of torture and human trafficking, there was “a mental health crisis” among residents of the barracks and “the barbed wires and fencing, and the regime of curfew and restrictions, served as recurring triggers for flashbacks to past torture and serious ill-treatment.” Reportedly the Home Office failed to identify special vulnerabilities among the people it accommodated at the site.

It has been revealed that health officials had warned the Home Office already in September 2020 that the Napier barracks were “not suitable” for accommodation, months before 120 residents contracted corona virus while living in the facility where social distancing is impossible. The health officials’ advice was ignored, and soon after the site was repurposed into an accommodation for up to 400 asylum seekers at times. A revealed report on Napier barracks from seven years ago concluded that they did not “meet acceptable standards of accommodation”. The Home Office has repeatedly said that the site offered good housing standards and argued it was an “insult to say it is not good enough” for asylum seekers while it has previously accommodated “our brave soldiers and army personnel”.

Following mounting critique over the accommodation conditions and lack of access to healthcare and legal counselling, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) assisted by the Prison Inspectorate, have visited Napier barracks and also Penally camp on 17 February. Further, the ICIBI has announced a broader inquiry into the Home Office’s use of army barracks and hotels to accommodate asylum seekers and invites anyone with relevant knowledge and experiences to submit their evidences.

Reportedly, additional cleaning and repairs overdue for months were carried out at Napier barracks ahead of the watchdog’s visit. The Home Office has also dramatically reduced the number of residents at the site, from about 400 people one month ago to now 63 asylum seekers. According to reports, no Home Office official has inspected the site since mid-November.

The Home Office pushes to use force to take fingerprints from asylum seekers at French ports in Calais and Dunkirk, claiming it would provide “crucial” evidence for rejecting asylum claims. The same measure was abolished shortly after it came into force nine years ago following a “public backlash” when a number of individuals cut or burned their fingertips to prevent being registered. Charities and Border Force staff criticise that implementing these measures would again lead to self-harm among people in need for protection.

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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.