Fire breaks out in Kent barracks used to house asylum seekers

29 January 2021, 16:50 | Updated: 29 January 2021, 18:38

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

A fire has broken out at the virus-hit Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, which has been used to house hundreds of asylum seekers.

Footage posted on social media showed plumes of heavy smoke billowing from a building and alarms blaring in the background.

Eight fire engines were sent to the barracks along with police officers, the fire service confirmed, and the blaze is now under control with firefighters damping down remaining hot spots

Amid reports of a riot at the site, Home Secretary Priti Patel called the actions by asylum seekers “an insult”.

She said it “is not only appalling but deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country who are providing this accommodation while asylum claims are being processed”.

"This type of action will not be tolerated and the Home Office will support the police to take robust action against those vandalising property, threatening staff and putting lives at risk," she wrote.

A fire has broken out at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent
A fire has broken out at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent. Picture: PA
Eight fire engines have been sent to the barracks
Eight fire engines have been sent to the barracks. Picture: PA

"This site has previously accommodated our brave soldiers and army personnel - it is an insult to say that it is not good enough for these individuals.

"I am fixing our broken asylum system, and will be bringing forward legislation this year to deliver on that commitment."

However, one charity accused her of playing politics with what has happened and called on the Home Office to shut down the site.

Kent Police said no arrests have been made.

It comes after more than 18,000 people signed a petition to shut down the barracks amid concerns over conditions inside.

Kent Fire and Rescue Service wrote on Twitter: "Firefighters are currently in attendance at Napier Barracks in #Folkestone.

"People in the area are advised to keep their windows and doors closed as a precaution due to smoke.

"Please also avoid the area while crews work at the scene."

Those living at the barracks have been moved outside but do not know if it will be safe to return to their accommodation on Friday, the PA news agency was told.

Police say there have been no reported injuries and enquiries remain ongoing to determine the cause of the fire and establish whether any offences have been committed.

A spokesperson for the migrant charity Care4Calais said of the news given to residents on Friday morning: "With many people still suffering from Covid and little treatment having been received the news of internal moves caused a great deal of shock.

"They have been kept in this military setting too long. They say they feel like they are in prison.

"This week we talked to many residents who told us the lack of communication and confusion have contributed greatly to the fear and tension inside."

Plumes of smoke have been seen billowing out from a building
Plumes of smoke have been seen billowing out from a building. Picture: PA
Police are at the site amid reports of a riot
Police are at the site amid reports of a riot. Picture: PA

One Napier Barracks resident said when the fire broke out he saw that one of the accommodation blocks was full of smoke with people inside.

He and some friends tried to get them out but firefighters arrived after around 15 minutes and helped rescue them.

In that time the blaze spread to another building, he said.

"Everyone is panicked," he told PA through a translator, adding that he fears something similar may happen again in future.

The blaze came on the same day residents were reportedly told by the Home Office that no more people would be moved from the controversial barracks.

"We (were told we) are going to stay at this camp until we have a decision about our (asylum) claims and we should be isolated for ten days in our rooms."

The asylum seeker, whose identity has been protected, said he came from a country where he was being persecuted by the government.

Asked about what living at Napier Barracks has been like, the man added: "I have suffered here more than I have ever suffered on earth.

"Now I am suffering more than I was."

He said that the "only dream" for many of them was to "get out of Napier".

Shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch wrote on Twitter: "Incredibly distressing scenes at Napier Barracks. Lives are clearly at risk and the situation is untenable."

The military site has been used to house about 400 asylum seekers since September last year, despite concerns over conditions.

Fears for their welfare escalated this week after 120 people are believed to have tested positive for coronavirus.

On Tuesday, Home Secretary Priti Patel insisted the accommodation was of a "very strong" standard and "in line with PHE guidance".

In response, Kolbassia Haoussou from Freedom From Torture, said: "We are horrified at the news of a fire at the former army barracks in Folkestone being used to house asylum seekers.

"We hope all residents, staff and emergency workers are safe.

"By mocking the vulnerability of asylum seekers, the home secretary would rather shirk responsibility and play politics with people's lives.

"Many of the people trapped here suffer from severe mental health issues and low immune systems linked to the abuse they have fled.

"The camps are unsafe, unsanitary and unfit to house vulnerable people."