The Home Office placed hundreds of asylum seekers in controversial military barracks following fears that better accommodation would "undermine confidence" in the system. Critics say ministers were “pandering to prejudice” and jeopardising health for “political ends”.
Conditions in two Ministry of Defence (MoD) sites – known as Napier Barracks, in Folkestone, Kent, and Penally Barracks, in Pembrokeshire – since they were were repurposed for housing asylum seekers last September prompted campaigners, lawyers and humanitarian groups to report poor access to healthcare and legal advice, as well as concerns over coronavirus safety.
Bridget Chapman, of local charity Kent Refugee Action Network, said the Home Office’s decision to use “inappropriate and isolated” buildings as asylum seeker accommodation was a “deliberate choice to create a narrative of being deliberately tough on those seeking sanctuary”.
An official document states that destitute asylum seekers are “not analogous” to British citizens and other permanent residents who are in need of state welfare assistance, and that the “less generous” support provided to this group is “justified by the need to control immigration. Any provision of support over and beyond what is necessary to enable the individuals to meet their housing and subsistence needs could undermine public confidence in the asylum system and hamper wider efforts to tackle prejudice and promote understanding within the general community and amongst other migrant groups.”
Sophie Lucas, solicitor at Duncan Lewis, a law firm that has represented a number of asylum seekers who have subsequently been moved out of the barracks, said the document insinuated that a less generous system for asylum seekers was a “legitimate response” to outcry from extremist groups.
“Instead of attempting to combat bigotry and hostility towards asylum seekers, the Home Office have pandered to prejudice. Penalising an already extremely vulnerable group of people in this way is unlawful,” she said.
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 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.”
Naomi Phillips, director of policy and advocacy at British Red Cross, said the sites were “completely inappropriate and inhumane” as housing for refugees, and called for them to be close “urgently”.