Dozens of asylum seekers have been wrongly placed in Napier Barracks after the Home Office failed to recognise their vulnerabilities, prompting concerns that ministers have ignored warnings from watchdogs.
The Independent has learned that around one in five individuals placed in the former military camp since it reopened on 9 April have been transferred out after the department admitted they had vulnerabilities which, according to its own criteria, made them unsuitable to be in barracks accommodation.
Among them are people who have been previously trafficked or subject to torture for months, causing them severe PTSD, and those who are age disputed, meaning they say they are children but have been assessed to be adults or haven’t yet undergone an age assessment.
Napier Barracks was repurposed into asylum accommodation by the Home Office last September. There was a major Covid outbreak at the camp in January which prompted a decision to gradually empty the site, but new residents started being moved in on 9 April.
A joint inspection by the Prison Inspectorate and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) in February raised a series of concerns about vulnerable people being placed in the camp, noting that “residents were not screened on arrival to assess their mental health and emotional needs despite possible exposure to previous trauma”.
However, lawyers and charities have told The Independent that 44 individuals have been transferred out of the camp on the grounds of vulnerability since it reopened, indicating that there is still no adequate screening process in place.
Campaigners have also raised alarm at the fact that the Home Office has started to carry out asylum interviews in the camp, reportedly sometimes giving residents just a few hours’ notice and not providing adequate means of accessing legal advice ahead of their interview.
One of the individuals transferred out of the barracks in recent weeks is a Sudanese man who is both a potential victim of trafficking and a torture survivor, according to charity Care4Calais, which is the only charity with a presence in the camp.
He is said to suffer from nightmares and flashbacks to his time in Libya, where he was sold to different people and spent a number of months imprisoned, tortured, and forced to work for no money.
In another case, an Iraqi man who is said to have been kidnapped and tortured in his home country was found to be living in the camp. After moving to the barracks he lost his appetite and felt he could not cope, according to Care4Calais.
The two men were moved out of Napier Barracks after the charity referred them to lawyers.
The Home Office has a suitability criteria to assess service asylum seekers’ suitability for accommodation at Napier, which looks at various criteria including age, physical and mental health and whether the service user has stated that they are a victim of torture or modern slavery.
The department said that if an individual presented vulnerabilities which were not known about prior to arrival, they were considered for alternative accommodation “if appropriate”.
There are currently around 233 asylum seekers in Napier Barracks, with new people being regularly moved in. The Home Office has stated its intention to increase capacity to 337, despite warnings that this would risk another coronavirus outbreak.
Emily Soothill, a solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn, which has prompted the transfer of 25 people out of the barracks, said all but one of these clients had been transferred by the Home Office after the law firm issued a pre-action warning, with the other individual transferred after it took further legal action.
She said the firm was receiving almost daily referrals of Napier residents who are victims of torture, victims of trafficking or unaccompanied minors.
Olivia Halse, of Matthew Gold & Co Solicitors, which has acted for 13 other vulnerable residents who have since been relocated, said: “It is abundantly clear that the current screening process is simply not working.
“It should not be the case that legal intervention is required to ensure the Home Office comply with their duties to ensure these vulnerable people are properly assessed and provided with accommodation suitable for their needs.”
The report by the ICIBI and the Prison Inspectorate found that systems intended to safeguard residents “did not ensure that vulnerability was always identified and acted on promptly” and that records of welfare checks were “often superficial”, with no records that checks had taken place in some cases, even for residents identified as vulnerable.
A Home Office spokesperson told The Independent it had worked to ensure that the suitability criteria was understood by staff and that individuals who no longer met the criteria were referred to the safeguarding teams.
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said it was “incredibly disappointing” that the Home Office “seems determined to repeat its mistakes” by continuing to house victims of trafficking and torture in Napier Barracks, and called for the camp’s closure.
The Independent has also learned that asylum interviews are taking place within the barracks, with some residents reportedly being given several hours’ notice before their interviews and not having the opportunity to get legal advice.
Care4Calais described the case of a man who did not have an immigration solicitor being woken by on-site staff and advised his interview was within the hour, while another was notified only 10 to 15 minutes before.
Maddie Harris, director and founder of the Human for Rights Network, which holds a weekly clinic outside the camp that the residents can attend for support, said that around 80 per cent of those who attended this week did not have an asylum lawyer.
“Interviews taking place quickly is only a positive if people are adequately prepared, given appropriate notice and have legal representation,” she added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Asylum seekers are given proper notice ahead of interview so that they can access support and can freely contact legal services. Migrant Help offer 24/7 support should an asylum seeker need any assistance.”
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