Napier Barracks Napier Barracks. Photo: Shadia Edwards-Dashti

Asylum seekers who have survived horrific journeys are now being held in such inhumane conditions they’re committing self harm and attempting suicide

Shadia Edwards-Dashti is a journalist whose recent documentary ’Napier Barracks | Asylum seekers reach boiling point is out now

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14), states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries. 

One of the defining factors within the European convention of Human Rights is that those seeking asylum in the UK have a right to be treated with humanity. What I saw in Napier Barracks is far from humanity.  

The ex-military base in Folkestone, Kent is currently serving as a temporary assessment centre for 400 male asylum seekers. Many of them made the perilous voyage across the English Channel, which for others over the summer had been their final journey.

Responsible for the repurposed facility is a private accommodation company hired by the Home Office. It’s been in operation for three months and could remain in place for up to a year. But every single day that goes by has devastating consequences for those effectively captive inside. 

As chilling reports of prison-like conditions within the barracks began to trickle into the media I went to visit the barracks to see for myself. I expected the worst but what I saw was unimaginable. 

Asylum seekers shut off from the rest of the world, behind barbed wire and a guarded fence. Like animals in a cage. The first thing that came to my mind were the horrific scenes we saw on the American border during Trump’s presidency, locking human beings of all ages in cages. But we are in Kent. In the supposedly civilised United Kingdom.

Within minutes of getting out of the car, my team and I were met with cries from those inside the barracks shouting for help and saying there was an emergency situation. But those deafening cries were to be silenced as security shooed them away from us as if they were children.

The Home Office has been cracking down on asylum seekers speaking to people like us and has even introduced a gagging clause, underpinned by the Official Secrets Act. It comes in the form of a confidentiality waiver which basically obligates signatories to keep schtum about what they see. I never went inside, or signed it, but I sensed a cover up as I peered through the fence, seeing people forbidden to speak, knowing what I knew about the government’s shady activities. 

This was the “hostile environment” in action, right in front of us. 

Aslyum seekers staying there are able to leave the compound they told me, just once a day for two hours. They told me the food was barely edible. The rooms were cramped with apparently 30 to a room, despite being in the heights of a nation wide Covid lockdown, and to maintain any privacy they used their only bed sheet as room dividers. Their beds infested with bugs. The men inside had taken to extreme measures to resist the conditions including hunger striking and protests. There have also been reports of self harm and even attempted suicide. 

Abdul, 24, who had just come out of hospital after being treated for self harm told me the barracks are like prison and that he thought the UK would be the beacon of hope to save his life not end it. 

He made brutal comparisons to dictatorships in the Middle End not even treating people this bad and that the entire experience in the facility triggered his trauma. It wasn’t just Abdul, I spoke with a dozen people living in the barracks all telling me the same thing. That the barracks are worse than prison, and that animals are treated better.  

Everyone in the barracks is waiting for a response about their application to stay in the UK, and have been told they will only be in the barracks for 30 days. But Hassan told me he had been there for over 2 months and that the Home Office is yet to get back to him. Before he was ushered back into the barracks he told me he goes to bed every night praying tomorrow will be the day he is let out. 

I was there for an entire day but my encounters with people inside made me think of far-right, anti-immigrant sentiment embraced by the UK government over recent years. These people were feeling it. One man approached me and said “they’re disgusting” – referring to the men held in the Center.  When challenged he made false claims about various criminal activities as justification that they shouldn’t be here. And as if straight out of the far-right textbook: “if they don’t like it then they should go back to where they came from.” 

Far-right pin-up Nigel Farage stated that ‘if the facility is good enough for our army personnel then it should be good enough for asylum seekers’. Nice.

The main object of military barracks is to separate soldiers from the civilian population and reinforce discipline and training. Often described as ‘discipline factories for soldiers’. 

From the outside the group of long buildings really do look like factories or pens for livestock. Asylum seekers are not in the army. Their only fight is the one to survive.

But it’s not just the minority far right that are out to get asylum seekers. As the migrant crisis escalated again this year with over 8,000 people making the perilous journey across the English Channel by boat, the UK government ramped up their rhetoric. Staying true to her words of making the route ‘unviable’, Home Secretary Priti Patel and her French counterpart have agreed on a pact to block off the passage entirely. 

The two governments say it will reduce the incentive for people to make the crossing but doing so only makes the journey all the more risky and dangerous. Those desperate enough to make that decision to get onto the dingy with their loved ones know that the cost could be with their lives.

This year saw the devastating deaths of two children, aged five and eight, and two adults after a boat capsized off the French coast, as well as a young teenager who was found washed up on a beach in Calais in August trying to make it to the UK.

Speaking to the so-called ‘lucky ones’ in Napier Barracks, who made it alive, not only was the journey here terrifying, but so was their experience on arrival. Asylum seekers at Napier Barracks suggest that had they known for a second they’d be thrown into a prison like this where they would regularly contemplate ending their life, they wouldn’t have risked it to be here. 

Maybe this was the government’s plan all along. Scaring people into suicide and depression and telling them they aren’t welcome, whatever their story and however far they’ve travelled. Ignoring any principals of protection and human rights. Or basic humanity. This should shame us all.

Napier Barracks must be shut now. 

Watch the full documentary of my visit to Napier Barracks

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