Dozens of asylum seekers have been moved to Napier Barracks despite concerns from health officials and government watchdogs about its suitability and an ongoing court case into the legality of such housing.
Charities and lawyers are concerned that vulnerable people are being wrongly placed in the army camp in Kent, after it emerged one man with severe mental health problems was almost moved to the site “in error”.
Napier Barracks was repurposed into asylum accommodation by the Home Office last September. There was a major Covid outbreak at the camp in January and residents have since gradually been moved into hotels, until it was fully emptied on 2 April.
But the department began moving a new cohort of asylum seekers into the former barracks on Friday morning, despite warnings from Public Health England (PHE) that the conditions were “not suitable” and a report from the immigration and prison inspectorates stating that onsite support was “inadequate”.
It emerged last week that there were no plans to reduce the number of asylum seekers per dormitory at the barracks, in spite of the coronavirus outbreak which infected nearly 200 residents. NHS officials have also warned that social distancing in such conditions is “impossible”.
Lawyers have raised alarm over the fact that ministers are pushing ahead with plans to continue using the site to house asylum seekers despite ongoing litigation around the legality of doing so, which is due to be heard by the High Court next week.
The Independent understands that one man was due to be transferred to Napier Barracks on Friday before the move was cancelled after charities and lawyers contacted Clearsprings, the Home Office contractor that manages the camp, raising concerns over his ability to cope there.
The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, spent two months in the barracks last year, before being moved out with the help of charities in December because he was suffering from mental health problems. He is currently being housed by the Home Office in a London hotel.
He received a letter at around midday on Thursday stating that he would be returned to Napier Barracks the following day and that “it is anticipated you will reside at Napier for between 60 and 90 days”.
Leyla Williams, deputy director at West London Welcome, who has been supporting the man, said the charity was “horrified” to discover that the man, who has been identified as a potential modern slavery victim, was due to be moved back to Napier Barracks.
“He suffered violence and came to the UK to be safe, only to be sent last year to a disused barracks with virtually no support along with hundreds of other vulnerable people. He is suffering a mental health crisis and still recovering from his experiences in Napier Barracks last year,” she said.
“His mental health deteriorated to the point where we had to support him to leave Napier, so we were shocked to learn that the Home Office had decided to return him there with less than 24 hours’ notice.”
Ms Williams said it was only when the charity intervened and raised concerns that the move was cancelled, at which point they were informed “there had been a mistake” and that he would not be sent to the barracks.
She added: “He has had a sleepless night and been subject to serious distress for no reason, while trying to mentally prepare for his move. The Home Office’s plans to move people to Napier are clearly chaotic.”
Emily Soothill, a solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn, one of the law firms challenging the Home Office over the lawfulness of housing people in the barracks, said she was “extremely concerned” that the Home Office was moving new residents to the site despite the ongoing litigation.
“It appears that the Home Office is taking this step without addressing the issues raised our clients, NGOs and the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, perhaps most fundamentally in respect of the failure to identify individuals with vulnerabilities, including potential victims of trafficking and victims of torture, who the Home Office has already acknowledged should not be accommodated at Napier Barracks,” she added.
Clare Mosely, founder of Care4Calais, who has also been involved in supporting the individual whose move to Napier Barracks was cancelled, said: “Thanks to the work of volunteers this terrible decision was reversed but what if there are others who do not have friends to help them?
“Refugees come here having already suffered much. It shocking to see this country causing further trauma and fear.”
Clearsprings said it was a matter for the Home Office.
A Home Office spokesperson said it would be moving more asylum seekers into Napier Barracks “in due course”, adding : “Our New Plan for Immigration will reform the broken asylum system; allowing us to welcome people through safe and legal routes, while preventing abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies