In September 2020, the UK government began utilizing decommissioned army barracks in Kent (Napier) and Wales (Penally) to effectively house asylum seekers in open prisons. These have been dubbed the first ‘modern’ refugee camps in the UK. Despite the home office claiming that these have been set up as temporary accommodation sites to manage the increased numbers of asylum seekers, I will argue that this move represents something much more sinister at play regarding the UK’s asylum policy. The UK, despite media propaganda, has not seen an increase in asylum seekers above previous years, and with coronavirus restrictions seeing hotels closed and empty, as well as university halls, plenty other viable alternatives would be much more suitable locations for temporary accommodation.
Currently, 665 people are to be accommodated across the two sites. Napier barracks holds approximately 400 men, while Penally holds around 250. The residents in these camps have been protesting the dire conditions over the past month. Hundreds of asylum seekers have gone on hunger strike or are sleeping outside despite the harsh weather conditions in protest of the cramped and unsanitary conditions as well as the fact they have no access to medical care or legal advice. The conditions have since been exacerbated after a fire at Napier barracks that left them with no electricity, hot water, or drinking water for days. Human rights groups tried to deliver 250 meals but were refused entry. In addition to this, due to a coronavirus outbreak, the camp has been placed on lockdown, no one is allowed in or out, people with symptoms are forced to isolate in a dorm with up to 25 people and are being left without food as they can not use the communal meal area. 120 people are estimated to have symptoms, yet they have been offered no medical care. Many residents are over 50 placing them at higher risk of adverse effects of coronavirus and lawyers have been arguing that forcing these people to share a dorm with a single sheet in between their beds is in breach of the law. One report shows a man attempting to leave the camp to get medical attention yet police guarding the camp arrested and detained the man, under COVID-19 restriction laws. The legality of this has been questioned as these camps are not prisons, nor detention centers, and under no circumstances should anyone be denied their right to seek medical care, yet the Home Office refuses to accept responsibility. The Home Office has also been quoted saying that those who protest and ‘misbehave’ may negatively impact their asylum claims. This is yet another illegal form of blackmail that set out to remove yet more of their basic rights. These conditions are negatively affecting the physical and mental health of the residents. There have been increased numbers of self-harm and suicide attempts and many are increasingly anxious over their safety. One Yemeni national said in a statement to the independent;
“I’m scared. Yesterday and this morning I didn’t go to get my food because I was too scared, and I feel unwell. One guy in this dorm has been coughing a lot in recent days and has a fever. The conditions here risk the spread of coronavirus. I just fled the war from Yemen, and I came to the UK to seek safety, but in the end, I might end up dying from coronavirus in a barracks.”
Army barracks are no place to house possible victims of torture or people escaping war. These conditions are not fit for purpose and are a crisis of humanity within a pandemic.
Home Secretary, Priti Patel has justified the use of the barracks, in a statement where she condemned the fire as deeply offensive to the British taxpayer, and to say it wasn’t good enough was an insult as it previously held British soldiers. Yet the Home Office has equally acknowledged the fact that the use of ex-military barracks is partly to ensure asylum seekers do not get too comfortable. The department’s equality impact assessment of the scheme states that “less generous” support is “justified by the need to control immigration” and that better conditions would “undermine public confidence in the asylum system”.
This comes at a time when the Home Office is also facing legal challenges over its proposed use of portacabins to house 200 asylum seekers on the ministry of defense land next to the Yarls Wood detention center in Hampshire. The Home Office is using emergency powers to bypass proper planning procedures and there are concerns that no impact assessments, in terms of environment or equality have been carried out. Psychologists have expressed concerns that the proximity of the camp to the detention center could exacerbate mental health conditions, such as PTSD, as people are on high alert and may blur the boundaries between the two sites. There are also concerns that as Brexit will make it easier for the Home Office to deport more asylum seekers the site will simply become an extension of the detention center, where conditions are already dire and mental health conditions severe. Local healthcare professionals are already stretched to capacity with the current covid-19 vaccine rollout and so many fall through the gaps and are left to suffer alone with an indefinite detention sentence.
This is just yet another example of how the UK conservative government is putting big business over people’s lives. Clearspring’s Ready Homes is set to earn £1billion over the next 10years through two government contracts to operate asylum accommodation in Wales and the South. Before the £1bn contracts ClearSprings Ready Homes won for its management of asylum centers, it earned £242m for “accommodation management services” between 2012 and 2019. In 2019, the company was named in a Guardian investigation that revealed asylum seekers were crammed into a network of “guest houses” overrun by cockroaches, rats, and mice. There have also been many complaints filed by the Kent local authorities for their poor management of properties and so begs the question as to why the Home Office thought it was a suitable candidate to manage the accommodation of some of the most vulnerable people within our society.
The degradation of asylum seekers treatment predates the pandemic. The Asylum System has been grinding to a halt over the past two years, with around 46,000 people waiting more than six months on an initial decision on their claims. Also, at present, there are up to 9,500 asylum seekers in temporary hotel accommodation across the country. There have been complaints that these hotels are like prisons with unsuitable food that has been making people seriously ill and lose weight due to the lack of nutritional value. National attention to this situation had also agitated a right-wing backlash, seeing people trapped in hotel rooms fearful of being attacked if they leave.
Besides, emergency responses to the pandemic exacerbating harm to groups of people already facing discrimination and stigma is not a pattern that is unique to the UK. In the spring of 2020, Roma communities in Bulgaria and Slovakia were targeted with special quarantine measures including police roadblocks and drone surveillance; a report published last autumn by the European Roma Rights Centre found “increased institutional racism and discrimination” since the beginning of the pandemic in 12 European countries. In the Mediterranean, meanwhile, the pandemic prompted Italy and Malta to close their ports to ships that rescued migrants in distress. Europe has been cracking down on search and rescue operations for several years, but this accelerated the process, leading to several situations in which ships were stranded at sea.
The camps in the UK are claiming to be temporary but set amongst the gradual tightening of border controls across the continent and growing nationalism within the UK population as well as among its ministers they could become a dangerous normalization of segregation. The Red Cross as well as many other humanitarian organizations have warned that ex-military sites are inherently unsuitable for people who may have been abused or tortured before arriving in the UK.
We can not let this situation continue. This can not be the new normal. People’s lives must be put first. You can join the fight to shut down Napier barracks by signing the petition for freedom from torture. Share the petition and tag #closethecamps. Britain’s approach to asylum seekers is shameful and we need to be the pressure to make the Home Office change its ways.