The Tories are considering using the former Napier military barracks in Kent to house refugees for “another couple of years”.
Lawyers told a parliamentary inquiry on Thursday that the barracks may be used for accommodation beyond September. The Home Office previously claimed that they would only be used temporarily during the pandemic.
Sue Willman from Deighton Pierce Glynn Law said the news “is something we are very concerned about”. She urged the inquiry to seek “further clarification” amid suggestions that portable cabins may be moved to the site from an immigration detention centre.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention’s inquiry was launched into the Home Office’s use of such sites amid concerns over living conditions. It’s heard evidence from legal and medical professionals, who have worked with refugees at the barracks.
Nearly 200 people, half of the residents, at the barracks contracted Covid-19 during a major outbreak earlier this year.
In April the Home Office declared the outbreak was over and insisted asylum seekers were staying in “safe, suitable, Covid-compliant conditions”.
But senior health officials have said it is still “difficult to envisage” the site being considered Covid-19 safe.
Just last month six asylum seekers previously housed at Napier won a legal challenge against the government.
A judge ruled their accommodation failed to meet a minimum standard. The court found the barracks provided inadequate accommodation and that the home secretary’s process for selecting people to be housed at the site was unlawful.
It also found that residents were unlawfully detained under Covid-19 rules.
The Home Office insisted “significant improvements” have been made. Yet the inquiry heard that it’s unclear what those improvements are.
Ministers claim it includes “improved accommodation and more outdoor and recreational activities, additional coronavirus tests and reduced capacity”.
Home secretary Priti Patel and immigration minister Chris Philp have both defended the use of former barracks. This is despite an inspection by two independent watchdogs describing the site as “filthy” and “decrepit”.
Patel has claimed they were suitable because they had been previously used for “our brave soldiers”.
Yet Dr Jill O’Leary, head of charity the Helen Bamber Foundation’s medical advisory service, said, “Military personnel have not been occupying the barracks for a number of years.
“They were disused for a reason and, even when they were being occupied by military personnel, it was for one to two weeks at a time. It certainly was not expected that anyone would live there for months, rather than weeks.”
Asylum seekers are “inherently vulnerable” and have “significant healthcare challenges”, she added.
Dr Juliet Cohen, head of doctors at charity Freedom From Torture, added there are differences between asylum seekers and soldiers.
She said, “Napier and Penally were not suitable for service people. There had been many complaints, they were run-down, seldom used and only used for very short periods.”
The inquiry also heard that the military and “quasi-detention-like” environment could badly affect refugees who have faced traumatic experiences or torture.
Public Health England (PHE) had advised against housing asylum seekers in dormitories in September 2020. But the Home Office proceeded with its plans.
At a hearing of the home affairs select committee in February, Patel told MPs that PHE advice had been followed. It was reported at the end of last month that the transfer of asylum seekers to Napier had been suspended.
Government health officials warned it could become a site of “reoccurring or enduring” Covid-19 transmission. The barracks were filled again with about 12 people sleeping in each room.
Patel is resisting calls to close Napier.
But the Home Office was forced to shut down a similar site in Penally, west Wales, amid campaigning by local Stand Up To Racism activists.
Anti-racists have to keep up the pressure on the Home Office to close all immigration detention sites.
An estimated 43 migrants drowned off the Tunisian coast last weekend as their boat capsized.
The refugees left Zuwara on Libya’s northwest coast in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
Some 84 migrants survived and were rescued by the Tunisian Navy by the finishing port of Zarzis. The boat was carrying migrants from Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Bangladesh, but sank after an engine malfunction.
The previous weekend 178 migrants were also rescued by the Tunisian Navy.
As the number of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean rises, so has the death count.
The beginning of the year saw an increase of 13,000 migrants arriving in Italy.
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