A major health crisis is unfolding in the disused army barracks where the government is currently housing vulnerable asylum seekers, including torture survivors and victims of trafficking.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What are the army barracks?
In September 2020, the government started using decommissioned army barracks in Wales (Penally) and Kent (Napier) to house asylum seekers, most of whom have arrived in small boats across the channel.
Despite the sites being defined as temporary accommodation, the Home Office announced that the sites will be used for 12 months.
"I feel like I am in a prison. I am detained although the only thing I did was seek sanctuary here in the UK. Why am I being punished for this?"
- Alex, camp resident, to The Metro
What are the conditions like at the army barracks?
Currently 665 people are to be accommodated across the two sites. Napier barracks holds approximately 400 men, while Penally holds approx. 250.
Social distancing is impossible in these barracks. They’re unsanitary and poorly heated, and people sleep in bunk beds separated by a sheet. They do not have access to a GP or proper healthcare provision.
The mental health of residents is deteriorating too and there have been a number of suicide attempts. Recently there have been hunger strikes and residents have refused to sleep indoors in protest at the conditions and the risk of Covid to which they are subjected.
The Home Office states that survivors of torture and victims of trafficking will not be accommodated on these sites but has no effective way to identify such vulnerabilities - so they continue to be housed in the camps.
This would be unacceptable in normal times. In a pandemic, it is a catastrophe.
Is the government planning to open more sites like these?
More recently, they have been exploring the use portakabins on MoD land in Hampshire and are about to begin moving asylum seekers into portakabins that will house approx. 200 people next to Yarls Wood immigration removal centre.
The minister has committed to move groups of residents out of the Penally barracks starting this week, but has made no commitment to cease use of the barracks for asylum accommodation. In fact, plans are afoot to extend use of the Napier barracks.
Where else could asylum seekers go?
In a pandemic everyone needs to have safe, secure housing where they are able to self-isolate if necessary and have access to adequate medical care. The barracks are unsafe and unsanitary and unfit for human habitation.
Government policy is to house asylum seekers within communities whilst waiting for a decision on their claim, which we support. However, where housing in communities is not possible we must find safe and humane alternatives. Hotels are not ideal but as an emergency option preferable to barracks.
The human cost and cost to public health of housing asylum seekers in barracks is too great for this situation to continue.
Has anyone done anything about it?
On 26 November we wrote to the government, with the British Medical Association, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Faculty of Public Health, Doctors of the World and the Helen Bamber Foundation, to warn them about the dire health risks of housing these very vulnerable people in the camps. Chris Philp, the Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts rejected our concerns.
We believe that these sites are unsuitable as housing for asylum seekers due to the lack of access to adequate and appropriate healthcare services, the public health risks resulting from a lack of compliance with the COVID-19 regulations, and the risk of retraumatisation triggered by accommodation in former military barracks.
What can you do about it?
We can’t let the government get away with this.
Here are three things you can do right now: