Why did they use military barracks to house asylum seekers and why has it been deemed illegal?

Tomos Owen

The Home Office began housing asylum seekers in disused army barracks around September last year and in that time their use has been a regular feature in the news. The Penally Camp in Tenby, West Wales, which was used for this purpose, was closed in March following an inspection that found it totally unsuitable and unsafe. Napier Barracks, an even larger site housing asylum seekers in Kent, remains open and is thought to house a population of around 250 individuals. However, the High Court has recently deemed that the Home Office’s use of the Napier barracks was unlawful and did not maintain a standard of living that protected the health of individuals. The outcome of this case was the inevitable result of a series of poor decisions taken by the Home Office during the height of the pandemic. 

The use of the military barracks for housing asylum seekers was the result of a housing shortage brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Home Office operates the housing aspect of the asylum process by contracting a large housing association to provide accommodation to asylum seekers while their claim is being decided. In normal times, once an asylum case is concluded and if the individual has received their refugee status, they gain rights almost equivalent to that of a British citizen and therefore become the responsibility of their local council. This means they are able to apply for council housing. This constant stream of individuals with freshly granted refugee status means that there is constantly space being freed up in the Home Office contracted accommodation for new asylum seekers. Although that is not how it worked during the pandemic. 

To the Home Office’s credit, during the height of the pandemic they took the decision not to move asylum seekers and refugees on from their accommodation in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Given that much of this accommodation is shared houses, this was a sensible move and definitely went some way to protecting individuals’ health. However, it also led to a massive housing shortage in the asylum process as the limited amount of accommodation provisions that the Home Office had access to was full. The Home Office’s solution to this was to rent out hotels, many of which were unable to welcome guests normally because of COVID-19, and to utilise disused barracks like Penally and Napier. In October 2020, there were 9,500 asylum seekers housed in hotels, a massive increase from the 1,200 housed in hotels at the end of March 2020. The Penally and Napier barracks provided another combined 634 beds for single adult male asylum seekers. 

In terms of space, the 634 beds that the military barracks offered was minimal in comparison to the number of houses and hotel space that the Home Office were using. However, the negative impact of the use of these barracks was staggering. The mental health implications for asylum seekers were particularly dire. Though not technically detention centres, the barracks acted in a very similar fashion. The camps are surrounded by barbed wire, there are visible patrols by security guards, there are curfews in place, and access to the outside is difficult. For those that had experienced traumatic events in their countries and fled to the UK to seek sanctuary, these conditions only served to exacerbate their trauma. The Home Office had apparently sought to avoid this by saying that vulnerable individuals would not be housed in the barracks, although this decision process must have been flawed. This was demonstrated when a number of cases were brought against the Home Office because of vulnerable individuals that had been housed at the Penally Camp, including by Duncan Lewis Solicitors who secured transfers for 51 residents. 

Even if individual asylum seekers were not vulnerable before going in, the conditions of the camp alone were still bad enough to be triggering. One of the examples I have referred to in the past relates to the large number of Eritrean individuals that were housed at the camps. The UK receives a number of Eritrean asylum seekers and one of the main reasons for this is because in Eritrea national service is compulsory, oftentimes indefinite, and the consequences for leaving can be brutal. One can only imagine the mental health implications for an individual who has fled their country because of the brutal national service setup and then arrives in the UK to be detained in a military barracks. These situations really paint the picture of a Home Office that is out of touch with the reality that asylum seekers face. 

Arguably, the biggest issue at the camps was the spread of COVID-19. In both Napier and Penally, asylum seekers were forced to sleep in overcrowded dorms with very little social distancing. At its height, there were 20 asylum seekers per room in Napier barracks. Inevitably, and so clearly foreseeably, when COVID-19 did get into the camp, it spread very quickly amongst the residents. In January and February this year, there were 197 cases of COVID-19 at Napier, which accounted for almost half of all residents. When questioned on how this happened, Priti Patel made sure to shift all of the blame onto the asylum seekers by saying, “people do mingle, and it is a fact when we looked at what happened at Napier people were not following the rules”. This attitude is truly astonishing given that the Home Office had put these individuals in these unsafe conditions in the first place. 

It is therefore unsuprising that a court case was brought against the Home Office due to the conditions of Napier barracks. As already mentioned, the Penally Camp fortunately closed in March 2020 and all of the residents were dispersed to alternative accommodation. The case regarding Napier barracks was brought by six asylum seekers as they deemed the accommodation unsafe and alleged that the dormitory-style setup led to the spread of COVID-19. The judge looked at the evidence of the COVID-19 outbreak and also a fire which occurred at Napier and ultimately judged in favour of the asylum seekers. He noted that, “I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants. Insofar as the defendant considered that the accommodation was adequate for their needs, that view was irrational.” He also criticised the detention-like settings. 

Following the ruling, there was an outpouring from organisations asking for the camp to be closed. Whether this will happen is so far unclear as the Home Office has an agreement in place with the MOD to use the site until September. Some also fear that this could be extended. One has to question whether all this simply helps paint the picture that the Home Office are trying to create. It appears that they want the UK to be seen as somewhere that doesn’t treat asylum seekers well in the hope that this will somehow make the UK “less desirable” to those fleeing their countries. I have addressed this flawed logic previously, but it appears to persist in the government’s actions and recent statistics do back this up. Only yesterday, an article was released revealing that the Home Office paid out £9.3m in compensation for over 300 cases of unlawful detention last year and in the last three years, it has paid out £24.4m to 914 people wrongly detained. This is an increase in cases of 216% in comparison to the previous three years before that.  

The Home Office’s actions are completely unsustainable and are causing irrevocable harm to individuals that are coming to the UK to seek sanctuary. They are also costing UK taxpayers millions in compensation payments that could be avoided if we were to treat individuals with more humanity. Housing asylum seekers in military barracks is only part of this problem and we need to see a shift towards being more receptive to those seeking asylum. It is now certain that this attitude shift will not come from the government and public pressure must be applied to change our current course. Without this, I fear that we are slipping further towards a nation that feels it is above international human rights law and, as we have seen elsewhere in the world, a nation that feels this way is capable of unspeakable cruelty. 

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