Home Office decision to house migrants in Napier Barracks 'unlawful', High Court rules

3 June 2021, 11:15 | Updated: 3 June 2021, 12:46

Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent (file photo)
Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent (file photo). Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

The Home Office's decision to house asylum seekers at "squalid" Napier Barracks in Folkestone was unlawful, the High Court has ruled.

Mr Justice Linden highlighted Covid-19 spread and overcrowding, a lack of ventilation, as well as the "detention-like" setting for the men, who were not meant to be detained.

Six asylum seekers brought the legal challenge against the "appalling" conditions at the site.

The judge said that while "adequacy" was a low standard, Napier Barracks had failed during the time six asylum seekers were housed there.

He said: "What is at issue here is accommodation in which they were supposed to live voluntarily pending a determination of their applications for asylum.

"When this is considered, a decision that accommodation in a detention-like setting - a site enclosed by a perimeter fence topped with barbed wire, access to which is through padlocked gates guarded by uniformed security personnel - will be adequate for their needs, begins to look questionable."

During the hearing, the men's lawyers said that accommodating asylum seekers at the barracks was a breach of their human rights and could amount to false imprisonment.

They also argued the Home Office failed to put in place a process to prevent "particularly vulnerable asylum seekers" from being housed at the barracks.

Tom Hickman QC - representing four of the six men - described the camp as "squalid, ill-equipped, lacking in personal privacy and, most fundamentally of all, unsafe", with no mental health support and only one nurse on site.

He also said moving the men to the former Ministry of Defence camp "exposed them to an exceptionally high risk" of contracting Covid-19.

Almost 200 people tested positive for coronavirus during an outbreak at the barracks earlier this year, senior Home Office officials told MPs in February.

The judge did not force the site to close, but he said: "If the barracks are to continue to be used, there clearly need to be substantial improvements in the conditions there, and lower numbers of asylum seekers living there for significantly shorter periods, with measures to reduce the risk of Covid infection which are consistent with PHE advice.

"But there also needs to be a better system for identifying those for whom such accommodation is not suitable and for detecting cases where, although suitable when initially transferred, it ceases to be during the course of their stay."

Home Secretary Priti Patel and immigration minister Chris Philp previously defended the use of such sites, despite facing criticism.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “During the height of the pandemic, to ensure asylum seekers were not left destitute, additional accommodation was required at extremely short notice.

“Such accommodation provided asylum seekers a safe and secure place to stay. Throughout this period our accommodation providers and sub-contractors have made improvements to the site and continue to do so.

“It is disappointing that this judgment was reached on the basis of the site prior to the significant improvement works which have taken place in difficult circumstances.

"Napier will continue to operate and provide safe and secure accommodation.

“We will carefully consider the ruling and our next steps.”

Read more: Asylum seekers at Napier Barracks 'powerless' against spread of Covid-19, court hears

Read more: Priti Patel pledges 'wholesale reform' of UK's 'broken' immigration system

Inspectors described parts of the site as "filthy"
Inspectors described parts of the site as "filthy". Picture: PA

Campaigners have called for the barracks to be shut down and repeatedly raised concerns about the site.

Mariam Kemple Hardy, head of campaigns at Refugee Action, said: "This judgment vindicates all those who repeatedly told the Government that recklessly forcing hundreds of refugees into crowded camps during a killer pandemic was a gamble with people's lives.

"It's high time ministers found some compassion in how they treat people seeking asylum, many of whom have fled violence, persecution and torture.

"Napier Barracks and all other camp-style accommodation must be shut down.

"Refugees should be housed in our communities, close to the cultural, health and legal support they desperately need."

Chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), Satbir Singh, claimed the ruling showed the "government not only ignores its own rules but that it is reckless with people's lives".

He added: "Abandoned, ramshackle military barracks are totally unsuitable sites to house anyone, much less victims of torture or trafficking and people fleeing atrocities.

"There is no place for sites like these in our communities and they must be shut down immediately."