Six asylum seekers had presented the case against the Home Office to highlight how the government’s ‘hostile environment’ manifests in the form of dangerous living conditions and nightmare conditions for refugee seekers.
TW: Discussions of self-harm, suicide
On Thursday 3rd June 2021, High Court judge Mr Justice Linden ruled that the Home Office and Secretary of State, Priti Patel, had acted unlawfully in their housing of asylum seekers at the former army barracks in Kent. This ruling came after six former residents of the camp, all survivors of torture and/or human trafficking, highlighted the squalid conditions at Napier barracks and how such conditions harmed those the government claimed to be assisting in housing them there.
The Napier barracks were opened for housing use in September 2020, following a need for more accommodation for migrants. Clearsprings Ready Homes Limited handled the management of the barracks, which in turn subcontracted out aspects of the housing operation to other parties. The buildings were already known to be ‘basic and slightly run-down, with multiple individuals being required to share sleeping areas and bathroom facilities. Due to such conditions, Public Health England (PHE) stated that the barracks were unacceptable conditions with the ongoing pandemic. The government should decide to proceed with utilising Napier; they would need to take steps to reduce the risk of infection.
When the barracks were opened, they initially housed approximately 155 residents. However, this number more than doubled by mid-November 2020 to 414. The court heard that 12-14 individuals were housed in each dormitory and that plywood and sheets were the only manners of creating a sense of privacy for tenants. After being questioned about these conditions and the possible risk for an outbreak of COVID-19, Patel stated that the barracks were “of a very high standard” and that a suitability assessment criteria would be introduced to ensure that only healthy adult male individuals who were less prone to infection and had good mental health would be housed there. This was challenged by the six claimants, all of whom presented evidence that they experienced trafficking and/or torture. The government has not attempted to consider their circumstances and housed them & other vulnerable individuals in Napier anyway.
Napier barracks gained mainstream attention when an outbreak of COVID-19 occurred in the camp in January 2021. The infection spread rapidly, with almost 200 inhabitants testing positive and the remaining residents at risk of contracting the virus. In addition to the outbreak, the restricting nature of the camp meant residents felt they were under detention. The claimants testified that there was a 10 pm curfew for all inhabitants and a high wire fence that made residents of the camp feel as though they were being held in hostile conditions. This was presented as a direct challenge to their fundamental human rights and the government’s duty under the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act to support asylum seekers who are or appear to be destitute.
Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP) inspected in February 2021, shortly after the initial outbreak, which proved instrumental in undermining the government’s position and upholding the claimants’ case. The HMCIP found that ⅓ of the residents they interviewed said they experienced mental health problems, ⅓ stated that they felt suicidal while living at Napier and that all respondents said they felt depressed during their stay at the barracks. In one case, an actively suicidal resident was taken off constant supervision and the following day was found hanged. The individual required overnight hospital treatment but was returned to the barracks, only transferred out three weeks later when staff had to intervene to prevent him from self-harming. The report notes that there was no review of this case and no attempt to improve residents’ care. The report found that vulnerable residents were moved to a desolate ‘isolation block’ where they were under constant watch with no form of distraction to keep them occupied, with a nail protruding from the door, despite the fact that it presented a risk in that it could be used to self-harm.
Though the judge dismissed some of the migrants’ claims, Napier’s fundamental fact was that a grossly inappropriate policy decision was upheld. The government now faces calls from several refugee and human rights associations, activists and politicians, to close the barracks and other forms of hostile accommodations. From the Humans for Rights network, Maddie Harris, an organisation that monitors violations against asylum seekers, noted that several migrants had faced pressure from the staff at the barracks should they speak to the media. Harris claimed that several asylum seekers had been told by staff that their asylum claims would be impaired if they spoke to media about the living conditions in the camp.
Roughly nine months after the camp first opened, the government now faces fresh criticism over its ‘hostile environment policy and its determination to take a harder stance against immigrants and refugees. The ruling against the Napier barracks has highlighted how the Home Office has failed in this instance in its right to protect refugees and how other camps may now be tested by the same measure, thus bringing a further legal challenge to the government’s migrant policy. In a world of social media as a vehicle for accountability and scrutiny, the Home Office now grapples with a political climate where their ‘hostile environment’ is plastered over Twitter and Instagram feeds for the world to see. The Napier barracks remain open for the time being, and Home Secretary Priti Patel continues to face calls to shut the barracks and resign. Though the camp’s future is uncertain, the ruling has made one thing clear: the government can no longer hide behind the 8-foot fences of camps like Napier. Their responsibility to protect all those who arrive at our shores must be evident, both in and outside the courtroom.