Asylum seeker ‘tried to take own life’ in ex-military base where hundreds are being held

Incident comes as lawyers warn conditions migrants being held in at Napier Barracks may breach law

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 19 November 2020 23:55 GMT
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<p>Since September, Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, was turned into accommodation for asylum-seeking men and is currently said to be housing around 400 people</p>

Since September, Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, was turned into accommodation for asylum-seeking men and is currently said to be housing around 400 people

An asylum seeker has been taken to hospital after reportedly attempting to take his life at an ex-military barracks being used to house migrants who have arrived on small boats.

Kent Police confirmed that the force was called just before 7pm on Wednesday to assist the ambulance service at the scene of a medical incident where the barracks are located. A spokesperson confirmed that no one had died.

Since September, Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, was turned into accommodation for asylum-seeking men and is currently said to be housing around 400 people.

Lawyers say the conditions at the army base, which see residents sleeping metres apart with around 15 to a room with sheets hanging between them, may breach the law, and accuse the Home Office of trying to “avoid scrutiny” of the situation.

An asylum seeker who has been in the camp for two months told The Independent a man tried to take his own life on Wednesday evening by “hitting his hand and neck with something sharp”. He said the manager intervened and tried to help him, and that the ambulance arrived “at the last minute”. 

The man, who asked not to be named, said: “This is due to psychological pressure in here and the delay in conducting our asylum interviews and screening. We feel like we’re in the middle of the ocean. No one asks about us. We just sit around. 

“I wasn’t surprised this happened. We thought maybe he would kill himself. My friend tried to do that before. I think it might happen again with another guy.”

Paul Turner, an immigration barrister who has represented six asylum seekers in Napier barracks who were subsequently moved to standard accommodation, said that given the “appalling” conditions in the camp, he was surprised there were not more suicide attempts.

Mr Turner said the conditions in the camp breached the Home Office’s own guidance on government guidance hostels and on social distancing, and that that there were also barriers to accessing legal representation or meeting with lawyers.

“They’re living no more than two or three feet away from each other, separated by sheets, sharing two toilets and one shower block that is cleaned once a week. It can only be described as third world conditions,” he said.

“My solicitor was struggling to get appointments. The staff running the barracks were acting in an obstructive manner in not facilitating access to the legal representatives.

“Having seen the conditions and being aware that the Home Office appears to be frustrating access of legal representatives, there is something fundamentally wrong here, and it doesn’t surprise me that individuals’ mental health is suffering.”

It comes after a resident at the barracks was reported to have contracted coronavirus, prompting fears of a mass outbreak due to the crowded conditions there.

Mr Turner said the Home Office had immediately agreed to move his clients when he threatened them with judicial review proceedings, which he believed was done intentionally to “avoid scrutiny”.

“When threatened with judicial review, the secretary of state, without admitting liability, informed our clients that they would be relocated somewhere, which ended the claim. I believe the Home Office is doing this to avoid the conditions in Napier Barracks being properly scrutinised," he added.

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Sonia Lenegan, legal director at the immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said she was aware that the Home Office had released “many” people who had legally challenged the decision to house them in Napier Barracks.

Responding to Wednesday’s incident, she said: “This is extremely distressing news. Ever since the disused army barracks at Napier and Penally were repurposed in order to house people seeking asylum, the sector has been telling the Home Office how unsuitable and dangerous this is.  

“In the wake of this tragic incident it is time for the Home Office to accept that the barracks should be closed and people housed safely elsewhere.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the wellbeing of asylum seekers in our care extremely seriously, and asylum seekers are able to contact Migrant Help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year if they need help, advice or guidance.”

You can contact the Samaritans helpline by calling 116 123. The helpline is free and open 24 hours a day every day of the year.

You can also contact Samaritans by emailing jo@samaritans.org. The average response time is 24 hours.

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