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Asylum seeker forcibly returned to Covid-hit army barracks after scaling fence in escape attempt

Legal experts raise questions about legality of forcibly returning asylum seeker to military camp

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 03 February 2021 17:36 GMT
Asylum seeker dragged back into Covid-hit barracks after escape attempt

An asylum seeker at a controversial army barracks has been forcibly returned to the military facility after trying to escape.

Video footage shows a man attempting to climb over the fence of Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, on Wednesday morning before being carried back into the facility by two police officers.

Kent Police said officers had been in the area of the camp when they were made aware of a “Covid breach”. The force said they encouraged the man to return to the site and were “required to use reasonable force to physically return him safely back inside".  

It said the individual was later arrested after escaping from the facility again, and that when officers tried to engage with him he assaulted an officer and was taken to custody.

Legal experts have raised questions about the legality of forcibly returning the asylum seeker to the barracks.

Residents have been prohibited from leaving the site since January, when a Covid-19 outbreak started at the camp, which was repurposed to hold around 400 asylum seekers in September. Around 120 people have since tested positive and residents are sleeping in dorms of more than 20.

An asylum seeker in Napier Barracks who witnessed the man being dragged back into the camp told The Independent: “He wanted to get out of here. He didn’t want to stay in this deadly swamp. We will die here.”

Another said he believed the man tried to escape because of stress and poor living conditions in the camp, adding that the police’s reaction made him feel afraid.

“I feel scared. I’m stressed too and it feels like prison here,” he added. 

There is a legal duty to self-isolate for those who receive positive tests, and police have powers to use force if these individuals who leave their homes and refuse to return. 

However, lawyers questioned how the police will have known that the man was supposed to be self-isolating, and whether his reason for leaving the site fell within the non-exhaustive list of exemptions, which include collecting medication and “avoiding illness”. 

Human rights barrister Adam Wagner described the footage as “troubling”, adding: "These are not detainees. I am dubious that there is a legal basis for the police using force. 

"There is a power under the self-isolation regulations to use reasonable force to return somebody to the place they are supposed to be isolating, but as far as I know, people at barracks weren’t given formal notifications to self isolate and therefore there was no power of enforcement. 

“In any case, I can’t see how the police can have known who was legally required to self isolate and who was not. We do not know the full facts but it is plausible the police have unlawfully assaulted this man.” 

Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, said it was “unclear” what power the police were using to force someone into a site where conditions were “widely reported to be unsanitary and not Covid-secure". 

He added: “While coronavirus regulations are framed as being for the good of public health, that is meaningless if the places people are forced to stay in are dangerous.”

Kevin Blowe, a coordinator for the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) said: "The current lockdown regulations do say people need reasonable excuses to leave their ‘home’ but these are not exhaustive and include ‘to avoid injury or illness’, which must surely apply in a Covid-infected camp. 

“Kent Police seem to have decided, however, that the barracks isn't temporary accommodation but a prison. These are frightened, vulnerable people, not individuals recklessly ignoring the rules. The individual officers need to justify their use of such force or this is assault.” 

A Kent Police spokesperson said: "Kent Police patrols were in the area of Napier Barracks during the morning of Wednesday 3 February 2021 when they were made aware of a reported Covid breach.

"Officers attended and engaged with a man to explain and encourage him to follow government regulations and return to the site.  

"He refused and officers were required to use reasonable force to physically return him safely back inside and no enforcement action was taken. The same male was then later seen again outside of the barracks and when officers engaged with him, he assaulted an officer and was arrested and taken into custody.  

 “Our officers will always engage with the public and ensure that people are aware of the current guidance and the need to stay safe.”

It comes as health charities warned that unwell residents at both Napier and Penally Barracks – another military site being used to house asylum seekers, in Wales – were being blocked from accessing GPs due to “gatekeeping” by Home Office contracted staff running the sites. 

The Home Office said it was fulfilling its statutory obligations and that all asylum seekers on the camps were registered with a GP. It said Clearsprings Ready Homes, which it contracts to run the sites, did not triage on behalf of the NHS but rather assists them with contacting health providers.

The Home Office and Clearsprings Ready Homes declined to comment on the forcible return, saying it was a matter for the police.

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