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Bishop of Durham’s visit to Napier fuels concern about asylum-seekers, he tells minister

07 February 2022


Napier Barracks in Kent

Napier Barracks in Kent

This article was updated on 10 February 2022.

THE Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, told the House of Lords on Thursday that he remained “deeply concerned” about the housing of asylum-seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent (News, 11 June 2021), after he and the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, visited the site the previous week.

And, in a continuation of the debate on amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill (News, 14 January) this week, he warned that if the UK sent asylum-seekers to detention camps overseas, conditions might be even worse. 

Napier remains in use, and has 308 residents, despite a High Court judgment declaring it inadequate for the purpose, and could model the design of future accommodation centres.

The court case was brought by six asylum-seekers after a fire broke out in January 2021, and 200 residents contracted Covid-19 in an outbreak attributed largely to the dormitory accommodation. Identified failings included overcrowding, lack of ventilation, run-down buildings, use of communal dormitories during a pandemic, significant fire risks, “filthy” facilities, and a “decrepit” isolation block not fit for habitation.

Peers were debating amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill (News, 14 January), which seek to ensure that capacity must not exceed 100, and that non-related residents are provided with an individual room in which to sleep. At issue is clause 12 of the Bill, under which accommodation will change from housing asylum-seekers in local communities to accommodating them in reception centres. There are many concerns about existing sites, such as Napier.

Opening the debate, Baroness Lister of Burtersett said that the evidence that the Lords had received about the experience of living in Napier was “overwhelmingly negative”. Such centres created what the campaigning organisation Hope not Hate described as “targets of hate”, and their use was likely to lead to increased harassment of asylum-seekers.

The use of former military barracks was suggested to be retraumatising for those who had suffered abuse and torture. The Refugee Council has warned: “Proposals to extend these forms of accommodation are ill thought out and dangerous, and undermine the UK’s duties to support and protect those making asylum claims.

“The amendments will not prevent the use of such accommodation centres . . . but they would go some way towards addressing their most inhumane features.”

Bishop Butler is the only member of the Lords to have visited Napier. He told the House: “Where we live and sleep is fundamental to our health, well-being, and ability to live our lives fully. It should be a place we feel safe, from where we can build our lives.

“It was clear from our visit that efforts have been made to improve things in the light of the previous inspection and the court case. The conditions are far from ideal, but the deeply shocking conditions we have learned about at Napier and Pennelly camps should never be repeated, and they are not currently being repeated.

“Good-quality asylum accommodation should be provided from the outset, not forced following inspections and legal challenge.”

He wanted assurance from the Minister of State that sleeping areas would be limited to two people. There were some single rooms and some for two people, but most were accommodated in what he described as small dormitories for either five or seven people.

“These are large halls separated by wood dividers that are only a bit taller than I am. They are not an unreasonable size. . . However, there is simply a sheet or curtain hanging in front of that section that divides it off and offers any kind of privacy. There is a lot of noise, therefore.

“Several of the occupants we talked to chose to share a room rather than living in single rooms, but they did not like living in small dormitories. Two in a room was quite welcome, but more than that was objected to.”

The Bishop raised questions about funding for ESOL (Eng­lish for Speakers of Other Languages) classes, and about adequate recreational activities. He asked: “Will work be done on community cohesion with the local communities? Will there be appropriate medical expertise on site? Will there be effective processes to ensure that the most vulnerable are not housed at these sites? Will the minister confirm that no children or families will be accommodated in such centres?”

Bishop Butler acknowledged that staff at Napier were working very hard to support the residents, and had a good rapport with them. “However, one still cannot avoid the overall feeling of a prison camp rather than a place of safety and welcome.”

Calling for a more compassionate and effective asylum system, he urged that applications should be processed much more effectively. The current situation, “whereby people are left to deteriorate during the long process, so that, once they receive their status, they are shadows of their former selves, is just not acceptable”.

He said that the overriding concern of the residents to whom he and Bishop Hudson-Wilkin had spoken was about the progress of their asylum applications and the welfare of their families, who were often still in their country of origin: “The lack of update from the Home Office on their applications was the deepest cause of frustration and concern that we all heard.”

The Minister of State for the Home Office, Baroness Williams of Trafford, said that there was “no reason that unrelated residents of accommodation centres cannot share sleeping quarters, provided they are the same sex, as this is already allowed in the asylum accommodation system”. But she promised to take the Bishop’s comments back to the Home Office.

She went on to pay tribute to Bishop Butler and the Church of England generally over community-sponsorship schemes (News, 20 November 2020), which had “done great work in terms of reception and integration for communities”.

She reiterated that the centres were not detention centres, and the Bishop confirmed: “We saw and talked to people who were going out into Folkestone for a walk and coming back. So, if the system is modelled on Napier as it is now, they were absolutely free to come and go.”

The Minister went on to reassure the Bishop that there would be additional recreational activities and appropriate medical expertise on site: “The simple answer is, yes. I know that he saw such an example when he was at Napier the other day.” The Bishop’s questions about community cohesion had been “very appropriate. We will work with local authorities to ensure that community cohesion aspects are addressed; I am sure that the Church will engage in that as well.”

She went on to express her gratitude to Bishop Butler for reporting on his visit there, and assured the Lords: “He did not have me wandering around after him showing him the best bits; he was free to go in, report, and make suggestions to me on the back of that visit.”

The debate continued. Many misgivings were expressed about the underlying rationale of accommodation centres. The Minister was on her feet for almost an hour answering questions.

This week, Bishop Butler repeated his concerns about Napier, and expressed his fear that conditions in off-shore detention centres might be even worse. “When people arrive on our shores seeking protection, we have a responsibility to treat them as we would wish to be treated if we had to flee for our lives,” he said on Tuesday.

“It is right that we have a process to determine who meets the criteria for refugee status, but while we determine this, we are responsible for people’s safety, welfare and care. If we move them to other countries for the processing of their asylum claims, I fear a blind eye will be turned to their treatment.

“How will we be sure that they are being treated humanely and fairly, and would our Government even give this much concern once they had left our shores?”

He said: “If what we have seen at Napier is permitted to happen in the UK, what can we expect overseas, where accountability and monitoring will be so much harder? The monitoring of asylum accommodation contractors in the UK is poor, which gives us some idea about the level of monitoring we could expect of offshore processing.

”What standard will be set for offshore accommodation? Will it be detention? How can UK safeguards be enforced in another country?”

He emphasised that asylum-seekers who came to Britain were the responsibility of the UK. “They came to us to ask for protection, and we cannot simply wash our hands of them. What will be the acceptable standards of a country’s asylum system for us to discharge refugee determination to them?” he said.

“The potential for standards and safeguards to drop is a very serious risk, with the challenges of monitoring and accountability at distance. They would far too easily become forgotten people. Offshoring must simply be ruled out of order.”

In response, Baroness Williams said: “We will continue to uphold our international obligations and ensure that all removals of individuals are compliant with our obligations under Article 3 of the ECHR, which protects against torture and ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’.”

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