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Napier Barracks in Folkestone, where failure to observe government guidelines on Covid-19 has led to a mass outbreak of the infection.

Mass Covid outbreak in Home Office camp for asylum-seekers

A mass outbreak of Covid-19 has taken place in Napier Barracks, Folkestone, where the Home Office has consigned several hundred men seeking asylum in overcrowded and deprived conditions under the unsympathetic care of a private contractor. Felicity Laurence, from the Campaigns Team, Hastings Community of Sanctuary (HCoS), reports on an increasingly desperate situation. All photos by Care4Calais.

Two weeks ago Covid-19 struck in Napier Barracks, Folkestone, where 430 men seeking asylum are being held; within days, the numbers went from one, to eight, to 120 by last Saturday, 23 January. On Monday 25th, on advice from Public Health England, about 100 people testing negative were finally to be moved from the camp, albeit temporarily, so that those remaining could self-isolate more easily.

The lives of people claiming asylum are devastated by the current pandemic: with just £5.66 daily allowance, they depend increasingly upon food banks, and are suffering serious digital poverty which leaves adults vulnerable to Home Office demands and extreme loneliness, children unable to access education, and all now without the kinds of vital support and contact that local groups were able to provide pre-Covid.

But even they are not at the very bottom of the pile.  That position is reserved for those people who are currently accommodated in ex-army camps.

Since September, hundreds of people seeking asylum have been crammed into two ex-military barracks, at Penally in Wales, and, much closer to us in Hastings, Napier Barracks in Folkestone. Conditions are dire (“horrifying” according to a report in a Kent newspaper), social distancing impossible, movement in and out of the camps severely restricted, and the men distraught; right now, 22 men in Napier Barracks are on suicide watch.

Alarm sounded

For months the alarm has been sounded by medical and humanitarian organisations; grave concerns have also been expressed by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI), David Bolt. The Home Office constantly rebuts the clear evidence of dangerous and inhumane conditions in this kind of accommodation, although last week, it gave way on the Penally barracks and stated that it will gradually move people out of the camp.

But plans have been announced to prolong the use of the Napier Barracks, and furthermore, to open additional disused army camps, as well as flimsy prefabs at former removal centres.

Marc Turczanski, of the East Sussex Links project, has worked with asylum-seeking people in and beyond Hastings for many years, and has direct knowledge of Napier Barracks. Its running is outsourced by the Home Office to the private, (huge)profit-making contractor Clearsprings; they in turn have seconded to it their staff member normally responsible for asylum accommodation in Hastings, resulting in a “knock-on massive reduction in support”  for the approximately 120 people dispersed here while their claims are being processed.

Marc describes the barracks as “hellish”, a view shared even by some of those who work in them. He believes that they were brought into play as a knee-jerk reaction, after the political fallout from putting people in hotels. But there is evidence of corners being cut by the contractors, and of unlawful practices by the Home Office; this view is echoed by legal sources, as the human rights of the men held there appear to be violated in a number of ways.

His impression that the constant stream of new civil servants  means that there is no institutional memory or any sense of having learned from past experience, echoes directly the recent comment from ICIBI’s David Bolt, who described as profoundly problematic the “merry-go-round” within the Home Office, its huge turnover, and consequently “little or no corporate memory” to inform the promised reforms to create a fairer system. Indeed, David Bolt doubts a real commitment to any such notion of change.

People awaiting dispersal to longer-term accommodation are gradually being moved from the short-term hotel rooms where many have been stuck – most certainly not in any luxury – for up to a year; Marc’s assertion that ” Folkstone barracks will be the last thing to go”  was prescient, as shortly afterwards, the Home Office announced that they intended to continue their use of the barracks beyond the original and temporary target of March.

This comes directly in the face of at least one pending legal challenge, and the current and increasing clamour from many voices – including the local population and MP – to close them down.

“The Home Office loves the Barracks!”

Marc’s stark conclusion pulls no punches: “The Home Office loves the barracks! They speak to their narrative of ‘punishment’ for those who have come here to seek asylum.”  The barracks make explicit a message of rejection and harshness towards those framed as ‘other’ and not of our kind.

Hunger strikes have been held to protest against the refugees’ treatment by the Home Office and its private contractor.

This is certainly how the men confined there perceive it. Bridget Chapman, media representative from Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), was outside the camp as the men held a hunger strike two weeks ago. She told me that it is not only her group that has for some time been prevented from entering the camp, but also journalists and – shockingly – solicitors. This wanton blocking of access to legal help makes a mockery of the Home Office assertion of ongoing processing of asylum claims.

Bridget also echoed very powerfully Marc’s interpretation of Home Office intention:  she described the “visual narrative” of confining men in an ex-military setting, complete with barbed wire, and the message of “punitive deterrence” that plays to a particular group within our society. Many held there are in fact survivors of slavery, trafficking and torture.

She describes the conditions they endure: 28 people to a room, no privacy, no chance of social distancing; often with 24 rather than 12 to one toilet, and the toilets themselves often unusable. And with the heating often not working, it’s brutally cold.

Dehumanised

The most common refrain from the men there, she said, is that they ” feel they are being treated like animals.” In other words, dehumanised.

And now they are stricken with Covid, locked in the barracks and terrified. The Home Office response has been to castigate them for bringing this upon themselves – displaying a degree of inhumanity that is impossible to fathom. Threats have also been made that the asylum claims of anyone who speaks up about the conditions will be negatively affected. But on Saturday, the men issued a letter – addressed to us all. We can hear them directly in these extracts, as they answer the immigration minister Chris Philp’s assigning of blame. Their exact words:

“We all sharing one space, we breath in the same room and there is no way we can practice social distancing… each infected person can spread the virus all over the block ..and this can cause a disaster as it did already…The question is why the Home Office put 400 people in one place?

“…no one chose to leave the country that they were born in, no one chose to leave their family and loved ones behind. We came to this country to save our lives.  We are detained without knowing what we have done to deserve living like this or how long we are going to stay here.

“…There are fathers, sons and husbands here. There are nurses, teachers, engineers and talented people and yet we have been treated like criminals or prisoners.

“…Asylum seekers of the Napier Barracks.”

“You enlightened our hopeless hearts”

In response to this letter many people have written to their MPs to show that there is another, compassionate public who do see the humanity of their fellow humans. Here is the men’s moving response; “Your kindness will never be forgotten… you enlightened our hopeless hearts.”

From Hastings we have already sent a full car load of hygiene items, snacks, socks, undies, clothes, hats, and scarves donated by the kind people of Hastings Supports Refugees.

A few days ago, we launched a petition calling for all barracks to be closed, and the people given humane accommodation and legal representation. Here is the final paragraph:

“We are a caring society. At the start of the pandemic, 750,000 people volunteered to help vulnerable people. We are asking you: PLEASE extend this spirit of kindness and goodwill to desperate people seeking a place of true humanitarian sanctuary in our country.

“Please sign our petition here and share it as widely as you can across our town and beyond. Thank you!”

 

A national petition from Freedom from Torture, also launched last week, can be signed here.

You can sign our Pledge here and follow us on Twitter (https://twitter.com/HastSanctuary).

And you can write to our MP Sally-Ann Hart here to request her support in closing the barracks.

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Posted 21:38 Monday, Jan 25, 2021 In: Politics

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