‘I feared I would die’: Life inside the Napier Barracks asylum-seeker housing
As the Home Office moves more migrants to Kent’s abandoned army barracks, first-hand reports from ex-residents reveal the dark future envisioned by Priti Patel
Hashem* arrived in the UK last year filled with hope. “I thought this is the country where I’m going to be free and start my new life without any stress,” he says. The 32-year-old Iranian fled his home country after he converted from Islam to Christianity, which meant he faced “punishment and even the death sentence”. But his happiness upon arriving quickly evaporated when he was moved into the now notorious Napier Barracks in September, along with 400 other asylum seekers. “I realised that this country is not as welcoming as it seemed to be,” he says.
Napier, a former military barracks on the Kent coast, was repurposed last year as accommodation for migrants claiming asylum. It hit the headlines when COVID-19 broke out in January, after months of warnings about the site’s unsuitability. Concerns about the physical and mental wellbeing of the asylum seekers during the pandemic led to most being eventually moved out, including Hashem, and a similar site at Penally in Wales being closed down.
But The Guardian reports this week that more are to be sent to Napier barracks this month – as Hashem told me he was informed by staff during his stay.
So what is life like for asylum seekers held at Napier? And what does the whole sorry episode tell us about home secretary Priti Patel’s future plans for the asylum system?
Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
There’s no question that Napier is a dreadful place to live, particularly during the height of the pandemic. With 28 people per block, and two toilets and showers shared between them, “hygiene is really poor [and] the chances of getting any type of diseases is really high,” according to Ethan, a 26-year-old Iranian who spent three months inside Napier.
Ethan contracted COVID whilst he was there. Patel blamed the migrants for “mingling”, but Ethan says “It was impossible to practice social distancing. We were still sharing a bedroom with so many people who had tested negative.”
He says they tried to separate each sleeping space with partitions in between and a sheet or a curtain to get some privacy. Some asylum seekers even slept outside in freezing temperatures because they were worried about catching COVID-19.
Lack of healthcare was also an issue, with only one on-site nurse for 400 people. Hashem was tested when he started developing symptoms of COVID-19. But, he says, the managers of the barracks didn’t give him back the test result, so he is unsure whether he had the virus. “We couldn’t receive any medical support so I feared that I would die because of this disease,” he says.
Conditions were so bad that some asylum seekers housed at Napier are suing the government for breaching their human rights, in a case to be heard later this month. Clare Jennings, who is representing 17 of them, says she is still shocked by “the total disregard to whether these men caught an illness for which there is no proper treatment, yet which can be fatal”.
When clients asked if those with COVID could be moved out of the rooms they were sharing, “the response was essentially, ‘you're all going to get it’,” Jennings adds.
Yet it’s not just during a pandemic that accomodation like Napier Barracks is unsuitable, according to lawyers, humanitarian groups and health experts.
Also impacting on the residents’ mental health was the prison-like, isolated, and militaristic nature of the barracks accommodation.
Hashem says that when he thinks back to the conditions at the barracks he ends up laughing, “but my laugh is not out of being happy, it’s out of anger, because it doesn’t make sense that I had to live like that in a country like the United Kingdom.” He says he felt like he was back in Iran “because the situation there looked like a country that doesn’t care about human rights”.
It’s worth remembering that these asylum seekers are not supposed to be detained. They are not people whose claims have been rejected and are awaiting deportation. In theory, their initial accommodation should allow them to go outside at any time. But that’s not what happened at Napier.
Following the COVID outbreak residents were locked inside the compound for a month – put under a stricter lockdown than any other UK resident. Ethan says they were told, “If we go out we will breach the regulations and the police will arrest us and the police are surrounding the area.”
But even before the COVID outbreak, residents lived with security guards on the gates, a barbed-wire fence around the perimeter, a curfew, and were only allowed out of the barracks for two hours at a time.
If this is a sign of things to come, it’s terrifying.
“The only thing that we could find comfort from in the camp was to go out and walk around the town and go to the beach. When they locked all of us inside we just felt that [our mental health] was getting worse,” says Hashem, adding that “it feels like you are in a prison.”
Napier has also become a target for far-Right groups and individuals, which Ethan says put some asylum seekers off going outside. “When we wanted to go out and walk around or go to the beach, there were some people who were trying to harass us, usually the far-Right activists – they were shouting at us or swearing at us.”
Jennings also says there were far-Right protests outside the barracks: “I think that’s what happens when you dump 400 asylum seekers in a place which is not that welcoming.” Mark Drakeford, Wales’s first minister, said in late September that Tenby, where Penally Barracks is located, had become a “target for hard-right extremist groups from across the UK”.
A mental health crisis
Being stuck inside the barracks is particularly difficult for many residents. “For many of these men, [the prison-like conditions] was triggering; it brought back memories of being in detention or being held for forced labour. And I think that is something that's maybe not understood by people who haven't had those experiences, that just being in that type of environment is harmful,” Jennings explains.
Every one of her clients reported feeling depressed, anxious, having flashbacks and insomnia, either triggered or worsened by living in the barracks, she adds. A parliamentary briefing paper reports that the barracks were “not considered appropriate” to house “vulnerable” men but that “all the residents at Napier had been “assessed as suitable for the accommodation”. According to Jennings, however, all of her clients are vulnerable, having experienced detention, torture, or some form of exploitation.
Dr John Chisholm, the chairman of the medical ethics committee at the British Medical Association (BMA) told me: “The BMA certainly doesn't believe the former military barracks are suitable to house asylum seekers who are already a vulnerable migrant group”, highlighting both the public health risks “and the risk of retraumatisation triggered by accommodation in the form of military barracks”.
For them to attempt suicide here, you really have to think how could that happen in the UK after everything that they've survived?
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, an organisation that has been delivering aid to residents at Napier Barracks, says she’s heard about seven attempted suicides inside Napier barracks in the past few months. “When you consider that these are people who have survived extreme conditions and really treacherous journeys. They're people who have amazing resilience – they’ve crossed the Sahara; they’ve crossed the Mediterranean. So for them to attempt suicide here, you really have to think how could that happen in the UK after everything that they've survived?”
Hashem confirms this, saying he heard of three or four suicide attempts. “I witnessed one of the suicide attempts personally and so I tried to change the block that I slept in and when I changed my room another person [tried to kill] himself in the block where I was living.”
There have been other reports of attempted suicides inside Napier, as well as reports of the difficulties in accessing legal aid and having no specialist mental health support on-site. Refugee Action revealed that in October ambulances were called to the barracks 19 times and in November one man was hospitalised after trying to take his own life.
Asylum seekers were told that they would spend approximately one month at Napier Barracks. But, like many others, Hashem spent five months in the inhumane conditions. The residents’ mental health quickly deteriorated once they realised they wouldn’t be leaving after a month, with many becoming “distressed”, “unable to socialise” and consuming pills to help them sleep, Ethan told me.
Last month a damning report, which highlighted “filthy” conditions at both Napier and Penally and “fundamental failures” by the Home Office, was published by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP). The report also found that about a third of respondents at Napier said they had felt suicidal, with people at high risk of self-harm put in a dilapidated “isolation block” considered “unfit for habitation”. Photos accompanying the report show a tiny room with dirty walls, peeling white paint, and what looks like mould growing.
After the report’s release, the Home Office acknowledged problems, saying: “We expect the highest possible standards from our service providers and have instructed them to make improvements at the site.”
The contractor running the Napier barracks, Clearsprings, has not responded to any of the allegations in this article. The firm has a long and troubled history of providing accommodation for asylum seekers, alongside other firms. It won a fresh ten-year contract in September 2019.
The new normal?
Josie Naughton of Choose Love, the charity that first raised the alarm about conditions at Napier Barracks, says we should call the barracks what they are: “camps”. She adds: “I think it feels very worrying to have [refugee] camps on British soil.” She says that the barracks are a troubling sign of “where this government is going; this shouldn’t become the new normal”.
Priti Patel’s proposals for new, tougher immigration rules, announced last month, included a plan to expand the “asylum estate” and build new “reception centres” to provide “basic accommodation”, and reports suggest the plans are to use these centres to accommodate asylum seekers for the whole time their claim is being processed.
This is a shift from current government policy, where an asylum seeker is supposed to be housed in temporary “reception centres” (or in hotels) only for a few weeks, before being housed in private rented housing and hostels around the country whilst their claims are processed.
Portrayed in home office briefings as stopping migrants “being housed in hotels”, Patel’s plans appear to go much further, and to entrench the long-term use of this type of barracks-style “basic” accommodation. Plans for more military sites to be repurposed as housing for asylum seekers are already in the works, such as one outside the small Hampshire village of Barton Stacey, which is already facing mounting criticism.
The Home Office has persistently defended the use of Napier as having “previously accommodated army personnel”, being “safe, warm, secure with three nutritious meals served a day” and “all paid for by the British taxpayer”. It has also defended its use as an emergency situation, telling The Guardian this week that “We secured permission to use Napier barracks for 12 months and while pressure on the asylum system remains will continue to make use of the site.”
The barracks were selected because more 'generous' accommodation would 'undermine public confidence in the asylum system'
Yet an impact assessment over the use of the barracks, conducted in September 2020 and leaked in February this year, revealed that the barracks – labelled derelict in a 2014 report, and not used by the army for over a decade – had been selected because more “generous” accommodation would “undermine public confidence in the asylum system”.
Chai Patel, legal director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said: “The government implied these cramped and disused barracks were being used as temporary housing because there was no alternative. But this document reveals that the Home Office has been jeopardising people’s health for partly political ends – prioritising playing ‘tough’ on migration over the lives of extremely vulnerable people, who’ve been placed in conditions reminiscent of those they were fleeing.”
Hotels, or integration?
Hashem was relocated to a London hotel at the beginning of March, after going on a five-day hunger strike to protest conditions inside Napier. He is starting to feel optimistic. “Now I can see people [from my hotel], the buildings and the activity in the city, it’s making me hopeful that I am going to be able to start a new life.”
Ethan was moved in mid-February and says that once he receives his asylum application result he wants to find a job in social work, which he majored in at university. “I really want to work and help people and contribute to society,” he tells me, although delays and poor communication from the Home Office have left him feeling “in limbo”.
All of the asylum seekers I’ve spoken to are now living in hotels whilst they await the processing of their claims.
Hashem says the hotel is “definitely better” than Napier Barracks, “but when I say hotel it doesn’t mean that it’s the best place, or it’s always suitable, because the place where I’m currently living is very dirty and there’s nothing in it – hardly any facilities and the food is really bad.”
In recent months there have been allegations of poor conditions and treatment inside hotels housing asylum seekers, including claims of sexual harassment and threatening behaviour in hotels overseen by Clearsprings.
It’s a far cry from the cushy treatment invoked by Priti Patel to justify the building of more basic, barracks-style accommodation.
Naughton from Choose Love tells me that many of the options currently used to house asylum seekers are inadequate and causing a “mental health crisis”.
“They're often incredibly remote. The water and sanitation is not up to standard. People don't have access to mental health services, they haven't got access to legal services. This is not always the case, but a lot of the time, [there is] very inadequate food and real destitution and lack of information,” says Naughton, adding that “Freedom is questionable”.
Community-based housing, not further basic “reception centres”, are the answer, she tells me.
Chai Patel, from JCWI, says that the government’s actions, particularly the use of former military barracks as asylum accommodation, seem “designed to create very visible problems...to appear to be as tough as possible, because that's what they think their voters want. And to put people in difficult, dangerous situations, because they think that will deter people from seeking safety.”
*Names have been changed
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
We’ve got a newsletter for everyone
Get our weekly email
CommentsWe encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.