Immigration minister denies asylum barracks ‘public health disaster’ despite over 100 Covid cases at site

Chris Philp claims military camps housing refugees 'appropriate and suitable' and 'good value for money'

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 08 February 2021 20:55
Immigration minister denies placing asylum seekers in barracks has been ‘public health disaster’

The immigration minister has denied that using former army barracks to house asylum seekers has been a “public health disaster” despite more than 100 residents contracting coronavirus.

Challenged by opposition MPs about the conditions in Napier Barracks, a disused Ministry of Defence (MoD) site in Folkestone, Kent which was repurposed to house hundreds of asylum seekers in September, Chris Philp claimed the facility was “appropriate and suitable”.

Residents have been banned from leaving the site since mid-January after a number of individuals tested positive for Covid-19, and more than 120 people are said to have since tested positive.

The Home Office has faced mounting criticism over the conditions in both the Kent camp and another military site in Pembrokeshire, known as Penally barracks, with NGOs and lawyers warning of poor access to legal advice and barriers to accessing healthcare and mental health support.

The Independent revealed last month that the Home Office’s equality impact assessment of its decision to use the sites for asylum housing was made on the basis that better accommodation would “undermine public confidence” in the system.

During Home Office questions in Parliament on Monday, shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch stated that the document made “absolutely clear” that the use of disused barracks as asylum accommodation was “absolutely a political choice”.

She went on to ask Mr Philp: “Does the minister not agree with me and others that the use of barracks as asylum accommodation has become a moral and public health disaster and people must be moved into dispersal accommodation as a matter of urgency?”

In response, the immigration minister said: “I don’t agree with that. We’ve been consulting with Public Health England throughout this episode. The use of this kind of accommodation is appropriate and suitable.”

He went on to state: “We need to have regard of a range of factors including value for money. We’ve had to use a large number of hotels in order to accommodate people during the coronavirus pandemic which do not represent a particularly good value for money.

“I can say barracks type accommodation is not only suitable but is cheaper than hotels and all of us owe a duty to the general taxpayer to ensure value for money and this government makes no apologies for that.”

A number of charities, including the British Red Cross, Doctors of the World and the Helen Bamber Foundation, have called for the urgent closure of the army camps, warning that it is “completely inappropriate and inhumane” to place asylum seekers there.

Stuart McDonald, SNP MP and member of the home affairs select committee, said during the House of Commons sitting on Monday that the equality impact assessment showed that the Home Office was “pandering to gutter politics”.

Questioning the immigration minister, he said: “Will the Home Office apologise for suggesting people in the UK oppose decent support and care for asylum seekers and close these barracks urgently?”

Mr Philp responded: “There is no apology due. These barrack accommodation units were previously used by the brave men and women of our armed services. They were good enough for our armed services and they are certainly more than good enough for people who have arrived in this country seeking asylum.”

Mr McDonald proceeded to quote a former senior military chief, Nicholas Mercer, previously the army’s top legal advisor, who described the use of barracks to house asylum seekers as “wholly inappropriate” and “nothing more than naked hostility to very vulnerable people”.

The immigration minister did not respond to this point, but added: “Thanks to the generosity of our approach, the number of people we’re accommodating has gone up from 48,000 to 61,000 during the pandemic, because we have taken a thoughtful and protective approach.”

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