Police in southeastern England have said that 14 people have been arrested at a center housing migrants and asylum seekers in Folkestone, following a fire and disturbances last week.
Kent police were called to a "disturbance" on Friday at Napier Barracks (a former army facility) now housing migrants and asylum seekers in southeastern England, reported the news agency Associated Press, (AP). A fire broke out, the on-site canteen was vandalized and windows smashed, according to various press reports.
The barracks in the port town of Folkestone are now home to around 400 people. On Friday, police arrested five people "in connection with the unrest" who remain in custody, reported AP.
A further nine people were arrested on Sunday, January 31.
The police suspect that the fire could have been caused by arson. Windows were also smashed during the "disturbances."
One of the five arrested last week, who has been named as 31-year-old Mohammed A, has been charged with "assault by beating, using or threatening unlawful violence and criminal damage," reported AP. He is due to appear in court on Monday, February 1.
According to police statements, no serious injuries were sustained but a "significant amount of damage was caused to one part of the site following a fire, which is believed to have been started deliberately," reported AP.
About 120 people test positive for COVID-19
In January about 120 people staying in the barracks tested positive for COVID-19 and the remaining residents began protesting about not being moved elsewhere for their own safety.
The BBC reported that on Saturday, Kent police were working alongside the Home Office and the fire service to "establish the full circumstances" of what went on and "identify any individuals involved."
The accommodation has been criticized by local NGOs and migrant rights groups, as well as some of the migrants themselves who have spoken to journalists about inadequate washing facilities, "freezing cold" conditions, a lack of hot water and paltry food supplies.
The charity Care4Calais, which mostly operates in northern France, through where many of those staying at the barracks came before arriving in the UK, tweeted on Sunday that "Napier Barracks residents have been without adequate healthcare, mental health support and COVID safety for months."
They added that since the fire, "they’ve had no heating, electricity or communication from those who should care for them."
Folkestone’s council leader David Monk from the ruling British Conservative Party, told the BBC that the remaining 300 people at the barracks should be moved to hotels. "One building has been virtually destroyed, but there is no intention to remove the people from the site," he said.
Care4Calais accuses the British authorities of deliberately placing the asylum seekers in "unacceptable conditions" so as not to "undermine public confidence in the asylum system."
Care4Calais refers to a newspaper report from The Independent about documents by the British government it has seen. The documents, claims the Independent, purport to show that ministers thought that if they provided better accommodation for asylum seekers then there would be complaints from the British public.
In the Home Office's (interior ministry) "Equality Impact assessement," carried out in September, reports the Independent, ministers said that the "less generous" support provided to asylum seekers was "justified by the need to control immigration."
The shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch from the Labour party told the Independent that keeping people in accommodation with no way of self-isolating was "reprehensible [and] an affront to the values of the British people." She called for all residents to be "moved into COVID-secure housing as a matter of urgency."
The government's own report claims that social distancing is possible in the barracks because the dormitory beds are placed "at least two meters apart." They also claim that "regular cleaning will take place to reduce COVID risks." Photos coming out of the barracks often purport to show dirty bathrooms.
'People do not feel safe'
Naomi Phillips, director of policy and advocacy at the British Red Cross, told the Independent that the sites were "completely inappropriate and inhumane." Phillips said that they had long feared that the kind of COVID outbreak which has now taken place would happen on a site like this. She claimed that residents told them they had received "no health screenings, were given little or no information about what was happening to them, and simply do not feel safe in the barracks."
A doctor with the medical charity Doctors of the World, Claire van Nispen tot Pannerden said the government’s decision to keep asylum seekers in the barracks during a pandemic was "beyond negligent," according to the Independent.
Chris Philp, the minister responsible for immigration at the Home Office, said that on the contrary, residents at the barracks had been able to access healthcare "whenever needed" and could also seek legal advice and support "freely."
'No plans to move any asylum seekers'
The barracks were last used for British military personnel five years ago, but Chris Philp said that since it had been used for the army it was "wrong to say that it is not good enough for asylum claimants."
The Home Office made a statement to the BBC saying that the department was "meeting all its statutory duties to accommodate asylum seekers. The Napier Barracks site is safe and secure and we are working with our provider to repair the damage that has been done," it read. The Home Office called the fire a "deliberate attack that puts lives at risk."
Care4Calais claimed that residents had been left alone over the weekend with no electricity or staff but the Home Office said that staff were only told to leave whilst the fire services took care of the fire and they were back in place on Friday, according to the BBC.
The Home Office told the BBC that despite calls to the contrary, there were “no plans to move any asylum seekers from the site and we are accommodating them all safely in the parts of the site that have not been damaged.”