‘Serious concerns’ over conditions at asylum seeker barracks

Home Secretary Priti Patel and her department faced repeated criticism from professionals, inspectors and campaigners over the decision to house asylum seekers in a former Army barracks.

The Home Office decided in September to use Napier Barracks in Kent and Penally Camp in Wales amid a shortfall of accommodation during the coronavirus pandemic.

This prompted concerns from campaigners and health professionals over the conditions in the former military bases, leading to petitions to shut the sites down.

Shortly after, a Covid-19 outbreak was confirmed at Napier.

Despite this, Ms Patel and immigration minister Chris Philp continued to defend the use of such sites.

The six men who brought the successful legal challenge against the Home Office were housed at Napier between September 2020 and February 2021.

Five of them tested positive for – or developed symptoms of – Covid-19 during their time at the ex-military base.

Mr Justice Linden said there was a peak of 414 people at the barracks in mid-November 2020, with residents sleeping with around 13 people in a dormitory.

In February, two watchdogs inspected the sites and found there had been “fundamental failures” by the Home Office which led to “dangerous shortcomings in the nature of the accommodation and poor experiences for the residents”.

The report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) said: “Given the cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier, once one person was infected a large-scale outbreak was virtually inevitable.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel (Aaron Chown/PA)
Home Secretary Priti Patel (Aaron Chown/PA)

“Serious concerns” had also been raised about fire safety by other inspectors, the inspectorate report added.

At Napier, inspectors also found:

– The accommodation was “inadequate” and “unsuitable”.

– There were “serious safeguarding concerns”. One person who was identified as a potential victim of trafficking remained there for a further 10 weeks before being transferred. In total, 31 residents had to be moved over health and safeguarding fears.

– People at high risk of self-harm were taken to a “decrepit” isolation block which was “unfit for habitation”.

– Seven people were thought to have self-harmed there and a further seven had “threatened suicide”. One “actively suicidal resident” had remained on the site for more than a month.

– Home Office communication with asylum seekers was “poor” and the “dearth of official information gave rise to misunderstandings and rumours, which had a negative effect on individuals and the collective mood”.

– The lack of privacy, activities and limited information available for asylum seekers had a “corrosive effect on residents’ morale and mental health”.

– Some asylum seekers believed to be children were kept at the barracks for long periods of time before being placed with social services.

A view of Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, (Gareth Fuller/PA)
A view of Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, (Gareth Fuller/PA)

In one instance, this was for more than two months.

– Staff – who were mainly security guards with backgrounds in nightclub, hotel and retail security or personal protection – were seen to be pleasant and respectful towards the asylum seekers but were “ill-equipped” to deal with the complex problems they faced.

Mr Justice Linden noted in his ruling on Thursday that the six men all said their mental health deteriorated as a result of their time at Napier.

As well as ruling in favour of the men on the ground that the barracks themselves were not suitable, the judge also found that the Home Office had placed “vulnerable” people at Napier who should have been housed elsewhere under its own guidance.