The Jesuit Refugee Service UK has renewed its condemnation of the use of disused barracks as asylum accommodation in the wake of a fire at Napier Barracks, which has led to a lack of electricity and hot water. It was rapidly followed by revelations that Home Office officials intentionally deployed substandard asylum accommodation to manage public opinion.
In considering the use of barracks as asylum accommodation, the Home Office stated in internal documents that destitute people seeking asylum were “not analogous” to British citizens and other permanent residents in need of state welfare assistance. They conclude that “less generous” support for people seeking asylum was “justified by the need to control immigration”, while better accommodation and support “could undermine public confidence in the asylum system”. These events follow a COVID-19 outbreak at Napier barracks the week before last, where it has been reported that 120 people have tested positive.
Sarah Teather, Director of JRS UK, said “People who have been forced to flee their homes have been subjected to unsafe, undignified, and inhumane conditions in barracks accommodation. We have sometimes been told that this is an emergency measure. Now, we see compelling evidence that it is intentionally cruel and part of a wider strategy: the government is risking the lives of the most vulnerable in order to make a political point. This gratuitous brutality is an insult to the British public whose decency and care for those in need runs a good deal deeper than Ministers’ base instincts.”
JRS UK’s detention outreach team is providing phone support to individuals accommodated at Napier barracks, and has witnessed a serious deterioration in the mental health of some individuals over their time there. Barracks accommodation both at Napier in Folkestone and at Penally in Pembrokeshire has been widely criticised as inhumane, with an inadequate supply of food and blankets and severely limited access to medical care. In November, a group of leading clinical experts noted the high risk of infection at the sites, where social distancing is impossible. They also noted that highly controlling regimes at the sites – including use of curfews – meant they resembled “open prisons” analogous to immigration detention. Both sites have regularly encountered protests by fascists who have sometimes sought to prevent NGOs and others from passing basic necessities to residents. JRS UK is aware of credible reports that this weekend, police and onsite managers also turned away people trying to deliver food and blankets.
The government is legally obliged to provide accommodation to people who would otherwise be destitute while their asylum claims are heard. People seeking asylum are banned from working and cannot access mainstream benefits, so are frequently forced to rely on such asylum support.
The use of the barracks sits within a pattern of deliberately harsh asylum policies: the government has a policy of creating ‘hostile environment’ for people refused asylum and others without immigration documents, and bans people seeking asylum from working, partly on the dubious basis that allowing them to do so would act as a ‘pull-factor’ to others. In recent years, government ministers have repeatedly referred to detention as a ‘deterrent’ against immigration infractions.
JRS UK’s latest report, ‘Detained and Dehumanised: The impact of immigration detention’ found that the real effect of the Home Office policy of immigration detention in prison-like conditions, is that it fosters a culture of death, self-harm and ongoing mental and physical trauma leaving those who are detained, or threatened by the prospect of detention, dehumanised.
In the UK, JRS is based in London and our work currently focuses on those who find themselves destitute as a consequence of government policies, and those detained for the administration of immigration procedures.