The horrific treatment of asylum seekers in Napier Barracks is a deliberate part of the Home Office's hostile environment, reports Shadia Edwards-Dashti
It's been 135 days since Napier Barracks, a former military site in Folkestone in Kent, first opened its gates to ‘house’ asylum seekers.
Prior to that the site had not been used by military personnel for more than five years as it fell into disrepair. It was not fit for purpose, even for squaddies. The wider site, owned by the Ministry of Defence, was sold off in chunks to the highest bidder several years ago and plans were made for luxury homes, retail outlets and a healthcare facility.
But before any families were to move into the future oasis near England's south coast, the UK government had other plans for the site. On 22nd September 2020, asylum seekers were forcibly moved in. It was allegedly only ever supposed to be used as temporary accommodation - while asylum seekers’ applications were processed - and the men were told they would only be in the barracks for 30 days. Yet the majority have been there since September, over 100 days more than they were promised, with little update on their asylum status. Their lives are on hold while they remain imprisoned.
In the last 5 months, I have visited the barracks numerous times. The running and maintenance of it, surprise surprise, is outsourced by the Home Office. Despite Clearsprings Ready Homes set to earn £1bn over the next ten-years through their contracts with the government, the conditions in their facility are worse than prison-like.
Filthy, up to twenty-eight people sharing one bedroom and one bathroom, freezing cold temperatures, broken appliances and substandard food. Add to that allegations of threats that their immigration process would be scuppered if they speak out about the conditions. Even when I visited, security did all they could to stop them speaking to me. The asylum seekers are effectively being silenced into submission.
Ongoing hostile environment
September 2020 - when Napier Barracks first opened - is also incredibly significant to the narrative of the government's “hostile environment.” A Home Office source at the time said Home Secretary Priti Patel was working "day and night" to bring an end to small boat crossings across the English Channel. She pledged to work with her French counterparts to “shut off the route entirely” sticking to the promise made the year before to make the passage “unviable”. The two governments said it will “reduce the incentive” for people to make the crossing.
And she wasn't lying - internal documents reveal ministers justified placing hundreds of asylum seekers in Napier Barracks because more “generous” accommodation would damage public perception and “undermine confidence” in the asylum system.
An asylum seeker I spoke to told me it confirmed their worst nightmare,
“This is all a game. They’re just making an example of us, to send a message to all the asylum seekers all over Europe that the UK is no longer a welcoming place for you. We are unintentionally advertising this message. We are the unintentional advertisement of the hostile environment.”
Each time I visited the barracks the situation seemed more desperate. Asylum seekers pleaded with me for help through the barbed wire, high-security fence, as well as on the phone and via text on a daily basis.
Trapped in a pandemic
And of course, 2020 was the year a deadly virus gripped the world. With all those men in grossly inadequate and overcrowded accommodation at the height of a pandemic, a Covid-19 outbreak was a disaster waiting to happen in Napier. And those inside were scared. They told me the “government doesn't care if we live or die.”
When the inevitable finally happened last month, the virus spread like wildfire. It took 120 people to catch the virus for the government to concede and it finally began a random selection process, or an “exit lottery” as they described to me, to get a hundred people out of the facility to allow for social distancing.
But people with the virus were still sharing bedrooms with those that weren't sick. Unable to successfully isolate Covid cases, the entire camp was forced into a total lockdown, and there has been no entry in or out of the barracks for asylum seekers since January 16th.
I want you to take a moment to imagine how you would have felt in my situation?— Freedom from Torture (@FreefromTorture) February 4, 2021
Imagine seeing Covid break out while you live with 20+ other people in one room, with nothing but sheets separating the beds. (Pictures can show).
I went to Kent to talk to them again and around 20 people came to the fences to plead for help. One by one, they said similar words: “we are human beings”, “we do not deserve this”, “we haven't committed a crime”, “why are we in prison?”, “why are we being treated worse than animals?”. The security couldn't stop them talking to me this time.
On 28th January, those still locked in were handed letters, which appeared to confirm there would be no more transfers out of the camp. I received multiple messages saying, “there is no hope, there is no end.”
It was a breaking point. A fire broke out in Napier, which police say was started deliberately. Smoke billowed for hours, alarm bells rang and many were left traumatised and triggered in a barracks which was now a scene of burning chaos. I spoke on FaceTime to someone inside while the fire was ablaze, who kept telling me he was “terrified” and felt like he was “in a war zone.”
After the incident, those still inside released a statement. Here is an extract:
“People respond to distress differently. Each of us react in our own unique way when we are desperate and disappointed. Some may protest peacefully, some refuse to eat, some commit suicide and when you are even more ignored, some may lose control. It is not something that we approve. The majority of us are against violence, as we escaped it.”
Up until the fire, the cries inside largely fell on deaf ears. One man told me “nobody listens to us, nobody cares about us. We have no value, we are nothing.” There had been numerous protests and hunger strikes. People had taken to sleeping outside in below-freezing temperatures and some were self-harming and attempting suicide. Those that tried to end their life told me, he “would rather die than be in that place.” What do you say to someone, who tells you that with tears in their eyes and cuts on their arms?
It was only a matter of time before the crisis hit the barracks again.
Responding to the fire, Home Secretary Priti Patel said it was “deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country” and that it was an “insult to suggest the site, formerly home to British soldiers, was not good enough for asylum seekers.”
Earlier this week though it emerged that barracks across the UK had suffered from "decades of under-investment" by the Ministry of Defence making them “substandard” according to the National Audit Office. Not exactly on message.
In the days after the fire basic utilities were cut off. There have been two long term power cuts. The first lasting around 36 hours, the second lasting just under ten. As well as this, electricity, hot water and heating have been off.
Currently, there is no medical professional on-site and access to doctors is blocked. But on top of that, asylum seekers are barred from leaving the barracks to seek medical attention despite the government’s Covid regulations certifying that “anyone can travel to seek medical attention.”
Footage has circulated of police forcibly dragging a man to the barracks. And, police are stationed outside on round-the-clock patrol duty. When I asked the police why they were there, they told me they didn't like my tone. And yet, the Home Office still maintains asylum seekers “are not criminals and are not being detained.”
Footage has emerged of an asylum seeker who apparently jumped over the fence at Napier Barracks being carried back inside. pic.twitter.com/QqClx85GRP— Simon Jones (@SimonJonesNews) February 3, 2021
This week a High Court judge ruled that an asylum seeker must be urgently rehoused from Napier Barracks, referencing the ‘prison-like’ conditions, the risk of Covid infection and that his mental health has “significantly worsened” since being in the barracks.
It's a huge ruling after five gruelling months, of what was supposed to be “emergency accommodation” following the so-called “mass influx” or “migrant invasion” of asylum seekers across the channel last summer.
The justification to use the barracks was that other spaces were at maximum capacity, and Kent was “struggling to cope. ” But thousands of hotels lay empty since the pandemic broke out, as well as thousands of other suitable homes across the UK. The use of this inadequate accommodation was part of the plan all along.
In August of 2020, a month before Napier Barracks was first used, Priti Patel promised to introduce new asylum laws that would “send the left into meltdown...” Under her watch, the government even considered building an asylum processing centre on a remote UK territory in the Atlantic Ocean. Out of sight out of mind?
Instead, they opted for the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ tactic using the Napier Barracks. But it's not just the political left voicing concern over the situation. Fellow Conservative and former immigration minister Caroline Nokes has labelled the barracks an “inhospitable ghetto.”
Napier Barracks' existence as a camp for asylum seekers should send everyone into "meltdown". One of the defining principles of the European convention of Human Rights is that those seeking asylum in the UK have a right to be treated with humanity.
It’s been 135 days since asylum seekers first walked into Napier Barracks. Asylum seekers in Pennally Barracks in Wales are facing similarly grotesque conditions. The fundamental principles of human rights in the UK are in meltdown too. We must act.
Watch the full documentary of my visit to Napier Barracks
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