Napier Barracks: Asylum seekers at Kent camp speak out - 'we were treated like criminals'

·4-min read

Asylum seekers housed at a disused army barracks in Kent were "treated like criminals" and some even tried to commit suicide, former residents have told Sky News.

Independent inspectors have spent the past week at Napier Barracks in Folkestone and at Penally camp, another former military base used to accommodate asylum seekers in Pembrokeshire.

It follows growing calls for the facilities to be closed down, amid claims of "inhumane" and "unsafe" conditions.

Tensions within Napier Barracks led to serious disturbances and a fire three weeks ago, after a COVID outbreak swept through the camp, infecting 120 asylum seekers there.

Majid, a young Iranian asylum seeker, is now living in hotel accommodation in London, but spent more than four months at the barracks.

He said he still suffered bouts of depression because of his time at Napier.

"When I first got there, it was like a prison. You could see all the fences and the security guards walking around," he said. "It was really shocking for me. Twenty-eight people were in each block with just two toilets and two showers in a block.

"Everyone slept close to each other sharing the same air. There were no supplies to clean or take care of our health."

Majid said things became increasingly desperate after coronavirus was detected at the barracks last month. Within weeks, it swept through the population there.

Mohamed, another resident at the camp during the height of last month's outbreak, said tensions began to build because of the lack of any proper social distancing, with many of those infected still allowed to mingle with the general population.

"The security officers treated us very badly," he said. "They didn't want to hear from us, and we weren't allowed to speak to anyone in authority.

"We were so shocked at the state of the barracks and it was this frustration that boiled over."

On 29 January, disturbances broke out in a number of the barrack blocks. One block was badly damaged by fire.

Majid said those events were terrifying, but the frustration was understandable.

"I was in my room and I heard my friend say one of the blocks is on fire," he said. "When I went out, I saw the roof was completely covered in huge flames.

"I felt really unsafe and it really traumatised me, seeing the fire, seeing the fear in everyone's eyes."

A High Court hearing on Wednesday heard that the government was warned months before the COVID outbreak at the barracks that Napier was "not suitable" for use during a pandemic.

The concerns raised by Public Health England centred on the dormitory-style accommodation, which it said made social distancing difficult.

The warning was revealed as six asylum seekers were granted permission to challenge the legality of the Home Office's decision, on the grounds that conditions in the barracks are so poor they breached their human rights.

In a statement from the Home Office, immigration compliance minister Chris Philp said: "Napier has previously accommodated army personnel and it is wrong to say it is not adequate for asylum seekers.

"The department takes the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously and are working closely with our providers and with Public Health England to ensure that any individuals who have to self-isolate can do so and are following all medical advice closely."

Majid was one of the many residents at Napier barracks to fall victim to COVID-19.

He said there was very little in the way of medical help and more general support, and some residents - already traumatised by events in their past - were pushed over the edge.

"I saw several people attempt suicide and others were self-harming. They were desperate, afraid," he said. "We've been treated like criminals and we don't know what we've done to deserve that."

In the wake of the COVID outbreak and the disorder at Napier, the camp's population has been reduced from more than 400 asylum seekers to just 63.

But former residents like Majid are fearful it may only be a matter of time before they are forced to return to the former army barracks.