Hundreds of asylum seekers were detained in substandard former military barracks because it was felt that better accommodation would ‘undermine confidence’ in the system. A fire broke out at Napier Barracks in Kent on Friday where about 400 men are being temporarily housed. Earlier in the month, there was a hunger strike to demand ‘basic human rights’, as reported on the Justice Gap, and it is believed that blaze was caused by arson.
It has now emerged that the Home Office justified the use of army barracks on the basis that more ‘generous’ accommodation would ‘undermine public confidence in the asylum system’. The Independent’s May Bulman reports that the Home Office’s own equality impact assessment reasons that destitute asylum seekers were ‘not analogous’ to British citizens and that the ‘less generous’ support provided to this group was ‘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,’ the Home Office stated.
According to the Home Office, the fire started as people had ‘set about destroying the barracks’ because they objected to not being moved from the site after a Covid outbreak. The Home Secretary Priti Patel called the ‘destruction… deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country’.
A statement on the shocking scenes at Napier barracks. pic.twitter.com/OUqPNydlyh
— Priti Patel (@pritipatel) January 29, 2021
One of the residents wrote to express their ‘sadness and sorrow’ for what happened. ‘it was horrible to see a building burning, to see the fear in everyone’s eyes and to see the staff in difficulty and pain.’
They went on to say: ‘Living in a terrible condition and unsafe when it comes to Covid, affected all the residents physically and mentally. Their protests, hunger strikes and suicide attempts were all ignored from the Home Office. This incident was not something that we all wanted to happen. People respond to anger differently.’
Chai Patel, legal director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told the Independent that 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.’
Meanwhile the documentary photographer Andy Aitchison who has been covering the demonstrations outside the barracks was arrested on Friday. Aitchison, an experienced photographer who specialises in prisons and whose work regularly appears in national newspapers as well as on the Justice Gap and Proof magazine, was charged him with criminal damage of a dwelling. His mobile phone was seized along with the memory card from his camera and he was held in a cell for over five hours. ‘I really feel like they’re trying to clamp down on the freedom of the press,’ Aitchison told the Guardian. ‘The government is cracking down on people who are saying things they don’t want them to say, and that’s not right.’ His arrest has sparked concerns about a clampdown on press freedom.
‘All [the protesters] did was throw buckets of food colouring, water and shampoo or conditioner at the gate and on the ground in front of the gate. As far as I know the only possible damage could be the netting on the fence might be slightly stained and there might be a puddle of red liquid in front of the gate.’
Andy Aitchison to the Independent’s May Bulman