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Former barracks ‘entirely unsuitable’ to house asylum seekers, High Court hears

Sam Tobin, PA
·4-min read

A former army barracks being used by the Home Office to house asylum seekers is “unsafe and entirely unsuitable”, the High Court has heard.

Napier Barracks in Kent has been used to accommodate hundreds of asylum seekers since last September, despite the Home Office being warned by Public Health England that it was unsuitable.

Six asylum seekers previously housed at the barracks, all of whom are said to be “victims of either torture or human trafficking or both”, say conditions are “appalling”, with no mental health support and just one nurse on site.

Almost 200 people tested positive for coronavirus during an outbreak at the barracks in January and February, which one NHS official who visited Napier said was “inevitable” given the conditions at the site, the court heard.

People seeking asylum – Napier Barracks
A man carries his belongings as he leaves Napier Barracks in Folkestone (Gareth Fuller/PA)

At the start of a two-day hearing on Wednesday, lawyers representing the six men said accommodating asylum seekers at the barracks was a breach of their human rights and could amount to false imprisonment.

They also argue that the Home Office failed to put in place a process to prevent “particularly vulnerable asylum seekers” being accommodated at the barracks.

Opening the claimants’ case at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Tom Hickman QC – representing four of the six men – said: “The camp was squalid, ill-equipped, lacking in personal privacy and, most fundamentally of all, unsafe.

“Those moved there, including the claimants, were exposed to conditions that had serious detrimental impacts on their mental health and, indeed, their physical health, in contracting Covid-19.

“In terms of the Covid-19 situation, it is no exaggeration to say that moving the claimants and other people to the barracks exposed them to an exceptionally high risk.”

Mr Hickman told the court that “45 people or thereabouts were moved into the barracks last week”, adding that “it appears to be the intention to gradually refill the camp”.

He also said there had been “seven suicide attempts (and) seven serious incidents of self-harm” at the barracks since it had been in use.

In written submissions, Mr Hickman said Public Health England told the Home Office in September that the barracks was not suitable and that, if there was a Covid-19 outbreak at the site, “the fallout would be significant”.

Napier Barracks incident
A burnt-out accommodation block at Napier Barracks following a fire at the site (Gareth Fuller/PA)

He said asylum seekers were housed in groups of 14 “in a single dormitory, sharing washing and toilet facilities with 14 other persons”.

This meant that, once coronavirus broke out at the barracks, “all residents were exposed, increasing the risk already inherent in the accommodation”, Mr Hickman said.

He added: “There is no evidence that either the second national lockdown in November or the subsequent discovery of the ‘Kent variant’ which led to a third national lockdown prompted reconsideration of the compatibility of the use of the barracks.”

Mr Hickman also said “it is apparent from the Home Office’s evidence that a number of alternatives to barracks accommodation were considered and proposed to ministers as potential options”.

But, he added, “the decision not to adopt alternatives was essentially political, not driven by necessity”.

Mr Hickman said the barracks, which is more than 100 years old and was previously used by the Ministry of Defence as temporary accommodation for soldiers, was “inappropriate for asylum seekers”.

He said the site was “overcrowded and felt to residents like a prison”, adding: “The conditions are prison-like, they are military, with an 8ft perimeter fence, barbed wire, unformed guards, curfews and padlocks on the gates.”

Mr Hickman told the court that the “appalling conditions” at Napier “acted as recurring triggers for traumatic flashbacks”, particularly for asylum seekers who were previously victims of torture.

Napier Barracks
The former barracks was used to house those seeking asylum in the UK (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Lisa Giovannetti QC, representing the Home Office, said in written submissions that the department accepted there is “a particular risk of Covid-19 transmission in congregate residential settings”.

However, she added that “it does not follow from the fact that there is a heightened risk of transmission in congregate settings that an individual residing in such a setting faces a substantial risk of serious illness”.

Ms Giovannetti said the Home Office “has taken reasonable steps to ensure that persons who are specifically vulnerable to severe illness or death from Covid-19 are not placed in a congregate setting”.

She also pointed out that “none of the claimants has become seriously ill with Covid-19”.

Ms Giovannetti said the Home Office “accepts that Napier is unsuitable for long-term accommodation, but it is not intended as such”.

She told the court the Home Office decided to use Napier Barracks “to provide short-term contingency accommodation to single, healthy adult males” in response to “an urgent need to source a significant number of additional accommodation spaces”.

The hearing before Mr Justice Linden is due to conclude on Thursday afternoon, and it is expected the judge’s ruling will be reserved to a later date.