Six asylum seekers formerly housed at Napier Barracks have won a legal challenge against the Government after a High Court judge found their accommodation failed to meet a "minimum standard".
The former army barracks in Kent have 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.
The men, all said to be "survivors of torture and/or human trafficking", argued the Home Office is unlawfully accommodating people at the barracks and conditions there pose "real and immediate risks to life and of ill-treatment".
During a two-day hearing in April, the men's lawyers argued that accommodating asylum seekers at the "squalid" barracks was a breach of their human rights and could amount to false imprisonment.
On Thursday, Mr Justice Linden ruled in favour of the men and found the Home Office acted unlawfully when deciding 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."
Mr Justice Linden said that while "adequacy" was a low standard, Napier Barracks had failed during the time the six asylum seekers were housed there.
The judge referenced Covid-19 spread and 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."
Home Secretary Priti Patel and immigration minister Chris Philp have both previously defended the use of sites like Napier Barracks.
But in light of the ruling they face calls to shut down the camps.
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 the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), claimed the ruling showed the “Government not only ignores its own rules but that it is reckless with people’s lives,” adding: “Abandoned, ramshackle military barracks are totally unsuitable sites to house anyone, much less victims of torture or trafficking and people fleeing atrocities.
“There is no place for sites like these in our communities and they must be shut down immediately.”
Human rights group Liberty echoed calls for the barracks to close, with Lara Ten Caten, the organisation’s lawyer who worked on the case, saying: “We should all have somewhere safe to shelter, where our dignity is respected and where our needs are met.
“Today’s judgment leaves no doubt that Napier Barracks falls far short of this, and the Government’s only response can be to close it down immediately.
“Accommodation at Napier Barracks is overcrowded and unhygienic, and the judge made clear that a coronavirus outbreak was inevitable.
“The Government was well aware of this, and yet it ignored public health advice and continued to house asylum seekers in unacceptable conditions – exposing them to great risk in the process.
“This a clear breach of people’s fundamental right to respect for human dignity, and it’s time for the Government to act.”
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.”