By Bethany Rielly
The Home Office has been accused of pandering to the far right by dumping asylum-seekers in dilapidated army barracks after internal documents came to light suggesting the decision was politically motivated.
The government has come under increasing pressure to shut down two Ministry of Defence sites where it has been holding hundreds of asylum-seekers since September amid serious concerns over safety.
On Friday a fire broke out at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, part-destroying one building. A charity supporting residents there said that asylum-seekers had been “completely abandoned” without water, food or power following the blaze.
Today Care4Calais founder Clare Moseley told the Morning Star that generators have since been installed to return power to the barracks and that meals were resumed by camp management on Saturday.
But Ms Moseley said residents had been left without heating for two days in the “freezing cold” despite numbers of them suffering from Covid-19. “My biggest concerns is there are over 100 people who’ve tested positive for Covid, which means they are sick and no-one is looking after them.” She said that volunteers with the charity had had to call ambulances to the barracks for two residents sick with Covid, and attempts to bring blankets into the site had been blocked by security.
Fourteen people have been arrested in connection with the fire.
A series of damning reports have come from the sites — the other is Penally Barracks in Pembrokeshire – which are run by government contractor and private property firm Clearsprings, alleging poor and dangerous conditions and lack of access to legal support and healthcare.
The Home Office’s use of army barracks to hold vulnerable asylum-seekers came under greater scrutiny today as department documents emerged implying the move had been a political decision.
The Independent reported that the Home Office’s own equality impact assessment of the plans to use MoD sites to hold asylum-seekers had justified the move by stating that housing individuals in more “generous” accommodation would “undermine public confidence in the asylum system.”
The document described asylum-seekers as “not analogous” to British citizens and other permanent residents who are in need of state welfare assistance.
“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,” it stated.
Campaigners say the shocking document proves that the decision was a political move to pander to the far right following outrage from extremist groups over the use of hostels to house asylum-seekers in the summer.
The Home Office started using disused army barracks to hold asylum-seekers in September, claiming a shortage of accommodation meant there was no alternative. The move followed a series of attacks on hotels and hostels where asylum-seekers were staying by far-right groups including Britain First.
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage made claims at the time that taxpayers were footing a multimillion-pound bill to put up “illegal migrants” in four-star hotels.
Rosie Newbigging, who has launched legal action against the Home Office to stop them building a new camp for asylum-seekers next to Yarl’s Wood Detention centre in Bedfordshire, said the document reveals “the government’s intent, which has been clear to campaigners from the start.”
“It has been clear that the government’s use of barracks — and the cruel plan to place asylum-seekers in portacabins on wasteland at a notorious immigration-removal centre — was about the politics of hard-right racism.”
“The government needs to turn immediately on this atrocious policy of placing people fleeing war, persecution and torture in prison-camp-style accommodation.”
Ms Moseley said: “If [the government’s] objective was truly to manage public perception about migrants, then the way to do it is to lead by example and treat them with dignity and respect, not pandering to the likes of Nigel Farage.
“That type of reaction is not managing racism, it’s encouraging racism.”
On describing asylum-seekers at “not analogous” to British claimants, she said: “I think that is the most inappropriate comment to have in a document about equality.”
Stand up to Racism West Wales campaigner Patrick Connellan, who has been supporting residents in the Pembrokeshire camp, said he was extremely angered by the report.
“When you go through what these men have been through, being put effectively in a prison, to eat food that is inedible, to live in huts with lack of heating, use showers with no privacy … to not be given proper access to physical and mental-health support — all of that was about dehumanising a group of people, all of that was government policy, and that is absolutely disgusting.”
Joint Council for the Welfare of Migrants legal director Chai Patel accused the government of “jeopardising people’s health for party political ends.”
And director of policy & advocacy at the British Red Cross Naomi Phillips said: “We have consistently raised serious concerns with the Home Office that barracks are inappropriate and inhumane as housing for people often fleeing war, persecution and violence.
“The contexts individuals have fled from are deeply significant. Many will have been held unlawfully in military buildings or prisons in their countries of origin, others will have had family members abducted or held in military barracks before, and some still don’t know the fate of their loved ones.
“Housing people who have come to the UK to seek protection in similar military settings, is retraumatising — it’s cruel, and it’s unnecessary.
“We want to see the closure of these sites. But as long as they remain operational, changes must be made urgently to make them more humane.
“As part of creating a fair and humane asylum system, the government needs to commit to working with local authorities, support organisations and, most vitally, communities across the UK to provide safe and suitable accommodation for those seeking refuge in the UK.”
The Home Office has been approached for comment.
Published at morningstaronline.co.uk