Campaigners have called for the permanent closure of the “detention-like” former army barracks in Kent that have been used to house asylum seekers, after a High Court judge found that the accommodation failed to meet the “minimum standard”.
Six asylum seekers formerly housed at Napier Barracks, in Folkestone, won their challenge against the Home Office over the “unsafe” and “squalid” conditions at the facility.
Activists have repeatedly raised concerns about the site, and a number of organisations including Refugee Action, Jesuit Refugee Service UK, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and Care4Calais, reiterated their calls on Thursday for the site to close.
The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, called the judgment a “shameful verdict” for the home secretary, Priti Patel, and added that ministers “have been warned – repeatedly – about the dangerous and unacceptable conditions at Napier”.
The group of asylum seekers, all said to be “survivors of torture and/or human trafficking”, argued at a hearing in April that conditions at the camp posed “real and immediate risks to life and of ill-treatment”.
The facility has been used to house hundreds of asylum seekers since last September, despite the Home Office being warned by Public Health England that it was unsuitable.
On Thursday, Mr Justice Linden ruled in the men’s favour, finding that the accommodation failed to meet a “minimum standard” and that the Home Office acted unlawfully when deciding that the former military camp was appropriate.
He said: “Whether on the basis of the issues of Covid or fire safety taken in isolation, or looking at the cumulative effect of the decision-making about, and the conditions in, the barracks, I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants.
“Insofar as the defendant considered that the accommodation was adequate for their needs, that view was irrational.”
During a two-day hearing in April, the men’s lawyers said that accommodating asylum seekers at the barracks was a breach of their human rights and could amount to false imprisonment.
Tom Hickman QC, representing four of the six men, described the camp as “squalid, ill-equipped, lacking in personal privacy and, most fundamentally of all, unsafe”, with no mental health support and only one nurse on site.
The Home Office defended its decision, saying it took “reasonable steps to ensure that persons who are specifically vulnerable to severe illness or death from Covid-19 are not placed in a congregate setting”.
Lisa Giovannetti QC, representing the department, said it “accepts that Napier is unsuitable for long-term accommodation, but it is not intended as such”.
Mr Justice Linden added in his ruling that while “adequacy” was a low standard, Napier Barracks had failed during the time the six asylum seekers were housed there.
The judge cited the spread of Covid-19, overcrowding, a lack of ventilation, as well as the “detention-like” setting for the men, who were not meant to be detained.
He said: “What is at issue here is accommodation in which they were supposed to live voluntarily, pending a determination of their applications for asylum.
“When this is considered, a decision that accommodation in a detention-like setting – a site enclosed by a perimeter fence topped with barbed wire, access to which is through padlocked gates guarded by uniformed security personnel – will be adequate for their needs, begins to look questionable.”
Both Ms Patel, and the minister for immigration compliance, Chris Philp, have previously defended the use of such sites.
Mariam Kemple Hardy, head of campaigns at Refugee Action, said: “This judgment vindicates all those who repeatedly told the government that recklessly forcing hundreds of refugees into crowded camps during a killer pandemic was a gamble with people’s lives.
“It’s high time ministers found some compassion in how they treat people seeking asylum, many of whom have fled violence, persecution and torture.
“Napier Barracks and all other camp-style accommodation must be shut down.
“Refugees should be housed in our communities, close to the cultural, health and legal support they desperately need.”
Satbir Singh, chief executive of JCWI, said the ruling showed that the “government not only ignores its own rules but that it is reckless with people’s lives”.
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “We are delighted with this judgment, which follows months of the government ignoring a mountain of evidence and complaints that Napier is not only unsuitable but highly damaging to vulnerable people entrusted to their care. It is disappointing that evidence provided by NGOs and regulators was ignored for so long and it has taken legal action to reach this verdict.
“The fact remains that Napier Barracks is still in use and people are clearly at risk. We will continue to campaign to get the barracks closed and the people inside must be moved to suitable accommodation as soon as possible. Penally [Barracks] was closed and Napier should be too.”
And Naomi Smith, chief executive of pro-internationalist group Best for Britain, added: “These centres must be closed now, and the most vulnerable in our society offered proper care and accommodation.”
Sarah Teather, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, described the barracks as “ghettoised, detention-like accommodation” and that it was time to close them.
Meanwhile, Jon Featonby, refugee and asylum policy manager at British Red Cross, said there was a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a fair, compassionate and efficient asylum system through reform” and “that should start with the immediate ending of the use of military barracks to house people”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “During the height of the pandemic, to ensure asylum seekers were not left destitute, additional accommodation was required at extremely short notice.
“Such accommodation provided asylum seekers a safe and secure place to stay. Throughout this period, our accommodation providers and sub-contractors have made improvements to the site and continue to do so.
“It is disappointing that this judgment was reached on the basis of the site prior to the significant improvement works which have taken place in difficult circumstances. Napier will continue to operate and provide safe and secure accommodation.
“We will carefully consider the ruling and our next steps.”
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