The arguments over Napier Barracks in the UK are worsening. Since September, the former army barracks have been housing migrants, most of whom made it across the Channel from France. The residents, NGOs and now politicians are criticizing government policy of housing asylum seekers there.
Frustration is mounting inside Napier Barracks and the voices criticizing the barracks in Kent have been getting louder and louder. Last week, a fire broke out in the facility which was being used to house up to 400 migrants and asylum seekers.
Since then various politicians on both sides of the political divide have added their voices to residents, NGOs and humanitarian organizations, who have long been saying that conditions inside the barracks are inhumane and not fit for purpose. Some residents and former residents told The Guardian newspaper on February 2 that they felt they were being treated "like animals."
They are calling on the government to look into conditions and move the asylum seekers still resident at the barracks as soon as possible. Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) has been posting some of the letters on their Twitter feed.
Policy has 'failed'
The Conservative former immigration minister Caroline Noakes, accused the Home Office of using the barracks to make Britain appear to asylum seekers as "difficult and inhospitable as possible," according to another Guardian article on February 2.
She said the policy of keeping migrants in barracks had "failed." Noakes was immigration minister in Theresa May's government between January 2018 and July 2019, when Boris Johnson took power.
Noakes, reported the Guardian, added that she was "surprised that the Home Office was moving forward with barracks plans while a handful of legal actions were under way to challenge their use." Two legal actions are currently pending against Napier Barracks, with three others relating to two other former army facilities in the UK.
The legal actions, according to the Guardian, "focus on the lawfulness or otherwise of providing such accommodation for asylum seekers," and look at whether that kind of accommodation could breach their human rights and be seen as a form of "false imprisonment, deprivation of liberty and failure to conduct vulnerability assessments."
Concern over the conditions inside
In December 2020, a number of humanitarian organizations, including Doctors of the World and Freedom from Torture as well as the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK wrote to the British government to express their concerns over conditions within the barracks.
Now the residents too have decided to start adding their voice to the mix. On January 21, before the fire, one asylum seeker at Napier wrote an open letter to the British public which was posted on the Instagram page of the charity Choose Love.
In it, he claimed that people were becoming "more mentally and physically ill due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Napier Barracks." The letter came after a number of people in the barracks had tested positive for COVID-19.
At least 120 COVID cases confirmed
In all, there were six cases confirmed in one block on January 14, yet, says the man "the managers of the camp decided to open the fences around the block and let the infected ones mix with everyone."
One week after that, says the man, at least "120 cases were confirmed and more test results are yet to be delivered." He said that the people running the camp had not isolated the infected people or provided any security from the pandemic and then he said "they announced the outbreak was our fault."
The man traces the outbreak back to the beginning of January when "two people showed all the symptoms of COVID." However, according to the letter, "all they did was advise them to isolate themselves in their rooms or give them Paracetamol. They still had no choice but to use the same toilet and shower which everyone [else] were using and they also did not get tested."
The anonymous letter writer accused the Home Office (UK interior ministry) and its ministers Home Secretary Priti Patel and Immigration Minister Chris Philp of "intentionally ignoring us and trying their best to cover the disaster which is happening in this army camp."
'Politicians are ... not telling the truth'
The decision to write the letter, the man said, was taken to tell the British public about the conditions in which they live and attempt to defend their point of view because "politicians are either intentionally ignoring or not telling the truth."
Napier Barracks, explained the man, is made up of "16 blocks to house 400 asylum seekers." Three of the blocks have separate rooms but the 13 others are "housing 28 people" per block. In these shared blocks, the man said everyone sleeps in one big space which is separated by partitions "open at the top and curtains to secure some kind of privacy."
The problem with that, he said, is that they are "all breath[ing] in the same room and there is no way we can practice social distancing." The hygiene facilities are also not adequate he said, because for each block and group of 28 people there were only two toilets and two showers.
The man said that extra toilets and showers had been provided outside of each block but they were "either out of order or have poor hygiene." The meals are served in a communal dining room, and the residents have to "queue to get the food three times a day, so we also share one space to eat as well."
The letter said that those in the barracks feel they have been "detained without knowing what we have done to deserve living like this or how long we are going to stay here. After so many protests and some suicide attempts, the Home Office still have no intention to improve the situation."
The man wrote that there were "fathers, sons and husbands here. There are nurses, teachers, engineers and talented people here and yet we have been treated like criminals or prisoners."
The humanitarian charity Freedom from Torture has set up a petition to try and get Napier and another barracks housing asylum seekers in Wales, Penally, closed. At the time of writing it has a little over 23,000 signatures and it needs 30,000 signatures to become effective.
'Sadness and sorrow'
A second letter, following the fire was posted on January 30, on London journalist Jack Shenker's Twitter page. In it, the asylum seekers of Napier Barracks expressed their "sadness and sorrow" for the fire. They said it was "horrible to see a building burning, see the fear in everyone's eyes and to see the staff in difficulty and pain."
The letter writer said the majority of those in the barracks were "against violence as we escaped it." and that they did not condone what had happened. Once again, they called on the British Home Office to "take action against violence and make sure that Napier Barracks will be closed as it is no longer safe and secure."
They added that they wanted to thank the "police and firefighters who helped everyone to be safe and fine."
Before posting the letter on Twitter, Shenker made another post in which he said "the people behind the letter have asked me to make it clear that saying they are ‘sorry’ this has happened is in no way an admission of responsibility -- they are simply sad and distressed at everything that is happening at Napier right now."
Legal action pending
One of the lawyers behind two of the legal actions against the barracks, Toufique Hossain, director of public law at Duncan Lewis solicitors, told the Guardian that the British government’s strategy to "segregate asylum seekers in collective ex-military/detention sites across rural and remote parts of England and Wales is yet another feature of its harsh, dehumanizing immigration policy."
The immigration minister, Chris Philp told the Guardian that because the sites had once been used to house military personnel "to suggest they are not good enough for asylum seekers is an insult." Philp added that asylum seekers were being provided with "three meals a day and have their basic needs catered for."
MoD accused of providing 'sub-standard accommodation'
The BBC however, reported on February 3 that Britain’s armed forces were also often "living in sub-standard accommodation," according to a new report by the government's spending watchdog, the National Audit Office.
The National Audit Office accused the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of accumulating a backlog of 1.5 billion pounds of repairs and "failing in its commitment to provide high-quality subsidized housing."
Problems with heating and hot water were some of the problems listed affecting currently serving military personnel staying in MoD accommodation. The MoD countered in a statement to the BBC in which they said they had already "invested 1.2 billion pounds over the last decade on construction and upgrades of our accommodation and continue to invest in a range of new-build and renovation projects."