Home Office faces legal challenges over ‘inhuman’ conditions for asylum seekers in former barracks

Exclusive: Ex-army camps holding hundreds of asylum seekers breach coronavirus guidelines and place residents at risk of suffering ‘degrading’ treatment, lawyers say

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Saturday 05 December 2020 17:03 GMT
The Home Office has already faced a number of individual challenges from asylum seekers arguing that they should be moved from the ex-army sites because of the poor conditions 
The Home Office has already faced a number of individual challenges from asylum seekers arguing that they should be moved from the ex-army sites because of the poor conditions  (Reuters)

Hundreds of asylum seekers are being unlawfully held in “inhuman” conditions at former military camps, according to legal claims filed against the Home Office.

Legal challenges have been mounted over two ex-army sites – Penally barracks in Pembrokeshire and Napier barracks in Kent – that were repurposed in September to hold asylum seekers.

Lawyers argue that the conditions in the camps are unlawful because they breach the government guidelines on Covid-19 precautions, as well as placing residents at risk of suffering from “degrading” treatment due to unhygienic conditions and a lack of access to medical care.

The Home Office has already faced a number of individual challenges from asylum seekers arguing that they should be moved from the sites because of the poor conditions – at least 10 of which the department conceded before the case went to court, resulting in the claimants being moved out.

The Independent is aware of a number of wider legal challenges now being prepared in a bid to close down the makeshift asylum facilities, as concern mounts over the welfare of residents.

In an individual case that is still pending, submissions were made to the court on Friday on behalf of a 20-year-old Iraqi national who was moved to Penally barracks in September after previously having been housed in various hotels since he arrived to the UK in March 2020.

The man’s lawyers argue that his continued stay at the camp has posed a “real risk” to his health and that there had been “no lawful or reasonable justification for removing him from suitable accommodation to the facility”.

They told the court that conditions at the camp did not allow for social distancing nor for compliance with the six-person rule, and that there was “no indication” that residents had proper access to medical care or masks, unless provided by a charity.

Lawyers say conditions in Penally barracks don’t allow for social distancing
Lawyers say conditions in Penally barracks don’t allow for social distancing (Supplied)

“It is submitted that these failures arguably amount to a breach of Article 3 [of the] European Convention of Human Rights and amount to serious mistreatment, neglect and general poor care on the part of the secretary of state,” the submissions read.

They went on to state that while it was accepted that there was an “added burden” on the Home Office because of Covid-19, the department’s actions were nonetheless “plainly unlawful”.

A detainee recently tested positive for the coronavirus in Penally barracks and there was no indication that others who were in close contact were allowed, or required, to self-isolate, nor that anyone who might have been in contact had been tested and treated as required, the lawyers said.

A Home Office spokesperson said residents were staying in safe, Covid-compliant conditions, in line with the law and social-distancing requirements, and were provided with guidance in relation to self-isolation, social distancing and hygiene.

Paul Turner, barrister at Imperium Chambers, who acted in the case, said the Home Office’s position was “at odds with the reality on the ground”.

“While the Home Office assert that the barracks is Covid-safe, it is plainly not, given the absence of even the most basic Covid precautions such as hand sanitiser,” he added.

It comes after healthcare professionals wrote a letter to the home secretary last week calling for both former army barracks that are being used to house asylum seekers to be closed over concerns about the residents’ wellbeing.

The signatories, which included the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Doctors of the World, said the sites were unsuitable because of the lack of access to adequate healthcare services, and that this places residents at risk of being cut out of the NHS completely.

They also warned of risks from a lack of compliance with Covid-19 regulations and that the military environment could trigger further trauma for the men, many of whom will have fled conflict.

Anna Miller, head of policy and advocacy at Doctors of the World UK, told The Independent it was “outrageous and irresponsible” for the Home Office to have moved asylum seekers from “safe accommodation where they could socially distance and isolate when needed, into shared dormitories with inadequate washing facilities”.  

“We are also concerned that the 600-plus people accommodated in these barracks can’t register with a GP and are largely reliant on first aid and paramedic call-outs,” she added.

Concern about the conditions increased further when it emerged that an asylum seeker in Napier barracks was taken to hospital last month after reportedly trying to take his own life – which fellow residents said was due to “psychological pressure” created by living in the facility.

The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, has also condemned the decision to place asylum seekers in the ex-military facilities, calling for “proper processes for transparency and accountability” to be in place throughout the immigration system.

Sonia Lenegan, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said: "Since the barracks were repurposed as asylum accommodation in September, concerns have been raised about the unsuitability of this accommodation by NGOs, lawyers, medical professionals, the Welsh government, the police, as well as the local community.  

“It is time for the Home Office to listen to these concerns, close the barracks and move people into safe and appropriate accommodation."

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are fixing our broken asylum system to make it firm and fair. We will seek to stop abuse of the system while ensuring it is compassionate towards those who need our help, welcoming people through safe and legal routes.

“As this is an ongoing legal case it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

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