LAST week, there was a Covid-19 outbreak among people seeking asylum housed at Napier Barracks, in Folkestone. This outbreak happened because asylum-seekers were forced to live in cramped and unsanitary accommodation, where up to 28 people are sharing one sleeping space. Everyone has to queue for food and eat in one space. Napier Barracks has capacity for approximately 430 people, and was first used as asylum accommodation during the pandemic, in September last year.
Now, pressure is mounting on the Home Office to publish a review into the conditions of this accommodation. From the beginning, clinical experts raised concerns about the spread of infection there and in other former Ministry of Defence sites, as did numerous NGOs. People accommodated in Napier also repeatedly raised issues.
But the Government ploughed on. This shows a horrifying willingness to risk the lives of those seeking sanctuary, which sadly echoes other aspects of an asylum system reluctant to extend protection, as I have written elsewhere.
The deployment of the barracks as asylum accommodation shows an intransigence in the face of reality: cramming hundreds of people into unhygienic living quarters with minimal access to medical care, inevitably risks the lives of those people, or of staff, or public health.
IT IS also, frankly, an example of an inhumane and unjust asylum system: the accommodation at Napier Barracks is unsuitable for people in the asylum process for reasons beyond Covid-19, resembling an “open prison” and, in practice, obstructing access to legal advice and other related support.
Here we have an inhumane aspect of the asylum system, pursued in the face of evidence that it will cause widespread harm. This is not anomalous. It finds close parallels in other aspects of the UK’s asylum and immigration policy and practice.
Key immigration control measures continue to be deployed, despite posing a grave risk of Covid-19 infection. People continue to be held in immigration detention — incarcerated in close quarters, and, again, we have seen the cost in an outbreak of Covid-19 at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre.
And this occurred because the Government chose to continue a practice that visits deep and lasting trauma among those subjected to it. Relatedly, during this national lockdown, unlike the first, there has not been a pause in reporting requirements: that is, a range of people subject to immigration control continue to be obliged to travel in person to report to Home Office buildings at regular intervals. They must often travel long distances, and often on public transport.
The experience of reporting is typically traumatic, because it can end in detention, and its usefulness is unclear. People report for years with no variation in the condition. This is the approach that led to the disastrous use of unsafe, undignified, and inhumane accommodation for people seeking sanctuary here.
THE pursuit of immigration and asylum policies that risk public health more broadly sits in the context of an immigration policy that has long prioritised immigration control over public welfare: the hostile environment agenda.
The hostile environment is a matrix of policy and legislation designed to make life unbearable for people refused asylum and others without immigration documents, in the hope that they will leave the UK. It creates barriers to many essential services, and operates by getting public officials and private individuals to share data with the Home Office for the purpose of immigration control. This marginalises those with precarious immigration status, many of whom have sought sanctuary here, and makes it hard for them to meet their basic needs, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
For example, victims of exploitation often find it difficult to go to the police for fear of immigration enforcement action. People in need of health care may not get it, partly because they cannot pay — a range of NHS care is chargeable for those refused asylum — and partly because, again, they fear that their data could be shared with the Home Office.
The hostile environment makes it harder to combat trafficking and modern slavery, and poses a risk to public health. We cannot overlook this when we seek to understand decisions about the immigration and asylum system during the pandemic.
The existence of a hostile asylum system need not have determined the Government’s approach to asylum-seekers during the pandemic. Indeed, there is reason to think that, in earlier phases, it did not do so.
During the first lockdown, immigration detention centres stood emptier than they had for decades; reporting conditions were paused; and a large number of destitute asylum seekers were accommodated under the “Everyone In” scheme.
These policies were not perfect. The commitment to housing those whose immigration status would normally bar them from public funds was ambiguous, continuing to create difficulty, and detention centres remained open. They did represent a moment, however, at which the pandemic had made us aware that the welfare of one is bound up with the welfare of all. This is true not only during the pandemic, but in general. And one of the things that we see in Napier Barracks is a failure on the part of government policy to acknowledge this reality.
IN RESPONDING to recent events at Napier barracks, we must call for an immediate end to the use of barracks to house those seeking asylum, and for the provision, instead, of safe and dignified accommodation.
We must also challenge an approach to asylum and immigration that does not value the lives of migrants and asylum seekers — that is, indeed, so ideologically committed to punitive measures against people who have been forced to flee their homes that it will even sacrifice the common good to carry them out.
Dr Sophie Cartwright is Policy Officer at JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) UK.