If it occurred​ to the home secretary, Priti Patel, or the minister for ‘immigration compliance’, Chris Philp, that an army barracks wasn’t the best place for refugees who might well have been detained and tortured in such places, it didn’t trouble them for long. Nor did they see any problem with housing four hundred men in 28-bed dormitories with two toilets and two showers in the middle of a pandemic. Abandoned for more than a decade, Napier Barracks on the edge of Folkestone was pressed into service last September as ‘initial accommodation’ for asylum seekers. They aren’t supposed to spend much time in such places, but to move on quickly to ‘dispersal’ accommodation while their asylum claims are assessed. The residents should be free to come and go: these aren’t detention centres.

The first reported case of Covid-19 in Napier Barracks was in October; the first suicide attempt was in November. Visiting members of support groups were required to sign confidentiality agreements to stop them reporting on what they saw. A Folkestone law firm said its lawyers were denied access to clients in the barracks. Despite this, reports emerged of poor food, unsanitary conditions, protests, mental health crises, hunger strikes and self-harm (there are similar reports from Penally, a former army training centre in Pembrokeshire which is being used to house Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers, and RAF Coltishall in Norfolk, where around forty Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers have been held since last April). In January, 120 of the men held at Napier tested positive for Covid, and all the residents were immediately locked in the barracks. The private contractor Clearsprings (which in January 2019 won Home Office asylum housing contracts worth almost a billion pounds over ten years) is said to have told them they would be arrested if they tried to leave, and that taking part in any protest against their treatment would jeopardise their asylum claim. Philp’s response to the Covid outbreak was to blame the men, claiming that some of them had refused to be tested, to self-isolate or to comply with social distancing. The asylum seekers responded with an open letter: ‘We are all sharing the same space, we breathe in the same room, and there is no way we can practise social distancing.’

On 28 January, a local journalist called Andy Aitchison who had photographed a protest outside the barracks was arrested on suspicion of ‘criminal damage’ and held in police custody for seven hours. The next day, a fire broke out in one of the buildings. Afterwards, residents were temporarily left with no electricity, heating or drinking water; charities bringing warm blankets and food were turned away by police. Patel lost no time in blaming the asylum seekers, saying their behaviour – the Kent police thought the fire was arson – was ‘deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country’. The place had been good enough for ‘our brave soldiers’, she said, and it was ‘an insult’ to claim it wasn’t good enough for asylum seekers. A leaked Red Cross report pointed out that military barracks were not appropriate places to hold survivors of violence and torture, but internal Home Office documents made clear that the use of such unsuitable accommodation was deliberate: providing anything better would ‘undermine public confidence in the asylum system’.

In February, video footage circulated showing an asylum seeker being carried back into the barracks by police. After two more escape attempts, he was arrested. Because the men aren’t officially being detained, they can’t apply to be released. Around the same time, the High Court ordered the immediate transfer into hotel accommodation of two of the men held at Napier, pending a decision on whether a full judicial review should be held: the men’s lawyers claimed that the conditions in the barracks breached their clients’ human rights as well as failing to meet their essential living needs as laid down by the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act.

Since the first lockdown began, the Home Office’s treatment of asylum seekers has appeared to contradict government guidance on hygiene and social distancing. Urban House in Wakefield, another Initial Accommodation Centre, which is run by the private contractor Mears, housed 264 people for several months, many of them with serious health conditions. Unrelated adults shared bedrooms, toilets, bathrooms and canteen facilities. They didn’t receive a cash allowance (asylum seekers are meant to be given £39.63 a week, for ‘food, clothing and toiletries’) and were classed as one household, a decision accepted by local public health officials. With meagre supplies of soap and hand sanitiser, dirty toilets and showers, no cleaners or NHS staff present at weekends, a Covid outbreak was inevitable. In July, 35 people tested positive, and the residents were finally dispersed; the centre has since reopened.

In late April, at the height of the first wave, Mears moved 321 asylum seekers in Glasgow with less than an hour’s notice, taking them in vans from self-contained accommodation to hotels and guesthouses, where they were forced to share facilities and eat the (frequently inedible, sometimes mouldy) food provided. Again, their allowance was withdrawn because, like those in Urban House, they were said to be in ‘fully catered’ accommodation. Two weeks later, Adnan Elbi, a thirty-year-old Syrian refugee, killed himself in McLays Guest House. He had been tortured in Libya, his father had been shot by IS, his mother was seriously ill in Syria, his brother had been kidnapped, his wife couldn’t join him in the UK, and he felt guilty about his inability to support his family. He was a known suicide risk. The following month a Sudanese asylum seeker called Badreddin Abdalla Adam stabbed six people at another Glasgow hotel, and was shot dead by police. Residents had told staff that Adam’s mental health was breaking down. Mears admitted it hadn’t carried out mental health assessments before moving the asylum seekers.

A different Covid strategy seems to apply for asylum seekers, one of containment: their health isn’t considered important. The Home Office has also ignored pleas by migrant rights groups to release those in immigration detention, and in April wrote to immigration judges demanding to know why they were granting bail to large numbers of detainees, despite the fact that deportation, the only lawful reason for detention, was impossible with international borders closed.

The government appears to support the argument put forward in Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s book Refuge (reviewed by Daniel Trilling in the LRB of 13 July 2017) that asylum seekers who come to Europe rather than staying in a country close to their own are not refugees but economic migrants. This doesn’t accord with the terms of the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol or with the conclusions of the Executive Committee of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which in 1999 led the High Court to accept that ‘some element of choice is … open to refugees as to where they may properly claim asylum.’ But Betts and Collier’s message was welcomed by governments of rich countries like the UK. As the Institute of Race Relations (of which I’m vice chair) reported in November, the securitisation of the Channel crossing has led since 1999 to the deaths of nearly three hundred people, including 39 children: victims have drowned, been asphyxiated in or crushed by lorries, or electrocuted in the Channel Tunnel. In response to the growing numbers risking the sea crossing (around eight thousand last year), Patel appointed a Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, deployed RAF patrols and naval drones, and considered using netting and barrages to stop the boats, as well as the possibility of offshoring asylum seekers on Ascension Island. (Apart from loony-right vigilantes, public attitudes towards asylum seekers seem to have softened, helped perhaps by the association of small boats with courage and Dunkirk.)

In 2014, when the Italian government sought EU help to continue the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, the Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay claimed that such missions acted as a ‘pull factor’. The decent treatment of those who arrive in this country is regarded the same way. In October, prison inspectors examining Home Office asylum reception arrangements found two hundred newly arrived wet and cold migrants at Tug Haven in Dover. They had been left for hours outside or in cramped containers on what the inspectors described as a ‘rubble-strewn building site’, without access to dry clothes or washing facilities. That same month, the children’s commissioner reported that unaccompanied children who had crossed the Channel by boat were being kept for days at the Kent Intake Unit without access to beds or showers. They were deliberately not asked questions that might identify them as having been trafficked, in an attempt to avoid the special duties which would then be incumbent on the government. Some children have been separated from their parents and some have been physically restrained, leading to the resignation of one senior Home Office official, who complained of the department’s ‘crude and quite brutal’ methods. The government has also broken its promise to ensure that, as Boris Johnson said in the Commons in 2019, after Brexit ‘this country will continue to receive unaccompanied children’ who want to join asylum-seeking family members here.

Since the summer, lawyers acting for asylum seekers have repeatedly been accused by Patel and Johnson of ‘defending the indefensible’, of being ‘lefties’ and ‘do-gooders’. After a knife attack on a member of staff at one immigration law firm in September, the Law Society urged Patel to watch her language, but she was unmoved. At the Conservative Party Conference she promised legislation this year to transform the ‘fundamentally broken’ asylum system. It won’t mean treating new arrivals better, but further restricting access to the asylum process and making deportation easier. This, it seems, is the ‘compassionate culture’ she promised after the Windrush review.

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