‘Fundamental failures’ in housing asylum seekers in military barracks – report

Flora Thompson and Sam Tobin, PA
·4-min read

More details on findings from inspectors that the Home Office made “fundamental failures” in housing asylum seekers in military barracks have been released.

Two watchdogs inspected conditions in Napier Barracks in Kent and Penally Camp in Wales, and key findings were published last month.

However, a full report, released on Thursday amid a court case, has laid bare the extent of the concerns raised.

Both sites have been used to accommodate hundreds of asylum seekers since September, despite Public Health England warning the Home Office that it was unsuitable.

The High Court heard this week that the more than 100-year-old accommodation at Napier – a former Ministry of Defence site to temporarily house soldiers – was “unsafe”, with six asylum seekers who had previously stayed there describing the conditions as “appalling”.

Almost 200 people tested positive for coronavirus during an outbreak at the barracks in January and February.

The report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) was released on Thursday after the PA news agency made requests to obtain the document during the two-day hearing.

It said: “There were fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office, which had led to dangerous shortcomings in the nature of the accommodation and poor experiences for the residents”.

Staff from the department “were rarely present at either site” and managers at both sites lacked “the experience and skills to run large-scale communal accommodation.” it added.

Inspectors noted the situation was slightly better in Penally.

Home Secretary Priti Patel and immigration minister Chris Philp have both previously defended the use of such sites, despite the Home Office facing repeated criticism over the decision.

Lawyers representing the six men, all of whom are said to be victims of torture or human trafficking “or both”, said accommodating asylum seekers at the barracks was a breach of their human rights and could amount to false imprisonment.

They also argue the Home Office failed to put in place a process to prevent “particularly vulnerable asylum seekers” being accommodated at the barracks.

Migrant camp at Penally
Penally Camp in Wales (ICIBI/HMIP/PA)

Home Office lawyers told the court the department “accepts that Napier is unsuitable for long-term accommodation, but it is not intended as such”.

The department gave contractors less than two weeks to get the sites ready for use, according to the report.

In September, Public Health England (PHE) told the Home Office “opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier was not supported by current guidance.

“Both PHE and, in relation to Penally Camp, Public Health Wales (PHW), expressed concerns to the Home Office about the Covid-19 safety of the accommodation.”

Both sites were opened before recommendations were implemented.

The inspectors said: “Given the cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier, once one person was infected a large-scale outbreak was virtually inevitable.”

“Serious concerns” had also been raised about fire safety by other inspectors, the report added.

At Napier, inspectors also found:

– The accommodation was “inadequate” and “unsuitable”.

– There were “serious safeguarding concerns”. One person who was identified as a potential victim of trafficking remained there for a further 10 weeks before being transferred. In total, 31 residents had to be moved over health and safeguarding fears.

– People at high risk of self-harm were taken to a “decrepit” isolation block which was “unfit for habitation”.

– Seven people were thought to have self-harmed there and a further seven had “threatened suicide”. One “actively suicidal resident” had remained on the site for more than a month.

– Home Office communication with asylum seekers was “poor” and the “dearth of official information gave rise to misunderstandings and rumours, which had a negative effect on individuals and the collective mood”.

– The lack of privacy, activities and limited information available for asylum seekers had a “corrosive effect on residents’ morale and mental health”.

– Some asylum seekers believed to be children were kept at the barracks for long periods of time before being placed with social services. In one instance, this was for more than two months.

– Staff – who were mainly security guards with backgrounds in nightclub, hotel and retail security or personal protection – were seen to be pleasant and respectful towards the asylum seekers but were “ill-equipped” to deal with the complex problems they faced.

Mr Justice Linden’s ruling has been reserved to a later date.