Asylum seekers plea for help as Covid sweeps Kent former army barracks

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

About 200 asylum seekers held at a former army barracks have signed an open letter hitting out at ministers for blaming them for a large Covid outbreak, insisting it is not possible to social distance in the camp.

There are about 400 men held at Napier Barracks near Folkestone, Kent, at the former Ministry of Defence site, and at least 120 of the men, around one in four, are understood to have tested positive for the coronavirus. The Home Office has not confirmed the numbers of positive cases on the site.

When details of the outbreak emerged, the immigration minister, Chris Philp, released a statement accusing some of the residents of “refusing to self-isolate or follow social distancing rules” or be tested.

But an emotional open letter addressed to “all British citizens”, written by one of the men and signed by 200 of his fellow asylum seekers, sets out the challenges they have in social distancing in cramped conditions.

The letter says: “When we are becoming more and more mentally vulnerable and physically ill due to the Covid outbreak in Napier Barracks, the Home Office, specifically its secretary, Priti Patel, and the minister for immigration, Chris Philp, are intentionally ignoring us and trying their best to cover up the disaster which is happening in this army camp.”

The letter describes the infrastructure of the camp, which it says has 16 blocks to house 400 asylum seekers. Three of these have separate private rooms, but the 13 others house around 28 people each. These 28 people share one space to sleep next to each other with partitions in between, two toilets and two showers, the letter states.

There are extra showers and toilets but they are often broken or unhygienic, the letter alleges. The men all eat together in communal canteen.

“We are all sharing the same space, we breathe in the same room, and there is no way we can practice social distancing,” the letter continues.

“The Home Office stated that it was the asylum seekers’ fault that we did not follow the rules and did not practice social distancing. By knowing these facts, how is following the guidelines possible? The question is why the Home Office put 400 people in one place?”

There are asylum seekers with a wide range of nationalities held in the barracks, including Iranian, Sudanese and Yemeni men. Many of them arrived over the summer in small boats across the Channel, and have been held at the site since September.

“It is vital to understand that no one chose to leave the country that they were born in, no one chose to leave their family and loved ones behind. We came to this country to save our lives,” the letter says.

“We are detained without knowing what we have done to deserve living like this or how long we are going to stay here.

“After so many protests and some suicide attempts, the Home Office still have no intention to improve the situation.

“There are fathers, sons and husbands here. There are nurses, teachers, engineers and talented people and yet we have been treated like criminals or prisoners.”

The outbreak follows repeated warnings from humanitarian organisations and healthcare professionals over the significant risks posed by Covid-19 at the site, which has been dogged by allegations of overcrowding and poor conditions.

In response to the letter, the Home Office reissued the same statement from the immigration minister it used when details of the outbreak emerged on Tuesday.