UK High Court rules six asylum seekers were detained illegally in Napier barracks

A High Court ruling has further exposed the UK government’s brutal anti-migrant policies. On June 3, High Court Judge Thomas Linden ruled, against the Home Office, that six asylum seekers were detained illegally in the former military Napier barracks in Folkestone, Kent.

Napier barracks has been used to accommodate hundreds of migrants since September of last year and is run by property management company Clearsprings.

The six asylum seekers had their case heard in a two-day hearing at the High Court in April. They argued that conditions at Napier barracks were in contravention of the Immigration and Asylum Act. The ruling led to calls for the Conservatives’ Home Secretary Priti Patel to resign.

In his ruling Mr Justice Linden stated the six men were, “vulnerable victims of trafficking and/or torture, who experienced a deterioration in their mental health as a result of their accommodation at Napier Barracks”.

He added, “Whether on the basis of the issues of Covid or fire safety taken in isolation or looking at the cumulative effect of the decision-making about and the conditions in the barracks, I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants. Insofar as the defendant [Home Office] considered that the accommodation was adequate for their needs, that view was irrational.”

Speaking on the “detention-like” conditions, Linden stated, “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.”

The judge found that from January 15, when an instruction was given to residents not to leave Napier barracks without permission, the asylum seekers had been unlawfully detained.

It emerged in February that Public Health England (PHE) had advised the use of such barracks in a pandemic could present a health risk and that the site was not suitable as accommodation.

Male asylum seekers were nevertheless housed in the barrack blocks, with up to 28 men in each block. It was impossible to observe COVID-19 pandemic precautions and in January and February of this year around 200 migrants (half the site’s population) tested positive for the virus.

On January 29, a fire broke out at the barracks. It was deemed to have been started deliberately and 14 asylum seekers were arrested. However, the real culprit was the Tory government responsible for the intolerable conditions inside the camp. Migrants, campaigners and migrant charities had been raising alarms for months about the cramped conditions and lack of access to health care and legal advice—all of which went ignored by the Home Office.

The High Court hearing revealed that the Home Office had been warned two months previously of a serious fire risk. The Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate carried out an inspection on November 24 and cited as a specific concern the use of sheets and curtains draped between bunk beds to give privacy and limited protection against COVID-19 infection.

The Court also heard details of a report, still unpublished in full, by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. The Home Office was told on March 21 that there had been seven suicide attempts and another seven incidents of serious self-harm. One third of the asylum seekers held at Napier were found to be suicidal and all of them had suffered depression at some point.

Refugee support group Care4Calais posted a testimony from Ella, one of its volunteers, in response to Linden’s ruling. She explained that Napier’s “reputation among asylum seekers means they’re afraid of the name” and that many taken there are either not told where they’re going or are “explicitly told they won’t be going to Napier…

“Of course, when they arrive, they’re alarmed and scared to realise where they are. They find an austere and dilapidated building. With its eight-foot fences, cell-like rooms and barbed wire, Napier resembles the prisons in which some of the people taken there have been tortured or held while being trafficked. At worst, this can trigger serious PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). At best, they feel cut off from the outside world and vulnerable.”

Lara Ten Cate, speaking for human rights group Liberty, said, “The government's only response can be to close it down immediately.”

Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the government had been “reckless with people’s lives” and that “Abandoned, ramshackle military barracks are totally unsuitable sites to house anyone, much less victims of torture or trafficking and people fleeing atrocities.”

The government have no intention of halting their assault on refugees and the right to asylum. Patel will treat the High Court ruling as more grist to the mill of her right-wing agitation against “lefty lawyers”. A Home Office spokesman said in response to Linden’s ruling that Napier “provided asylum seekers with a safe and secure place to stay” and that the department was “disappointed” with the judgement.

After briefly emptying the barracks in early April, the Home Office has begun to fill Napier again. The site currently houses around 265 migrants, with around 12 in each block, and lawyers representing asylum seekers kept there understand the intention is to house over 300. One man at the site told the BBC conditions were remained inhumane, with no hot water or electricity and one shower for 100 people.

In an attempt to prevent this information being reported, the government are pressuring migrants not to talk to journalists, effectively threatening them with deportation. A June 6 Guardian article quoted Maddie Harris from Humans for Rights Network saying she had been told by a group of migrants at the site that, “They were told by staff that there is a full list of people in the camp and that names have been circled who are known to have spoken to journalists. They were told it’s going to be a problem for their asylum claim.”

What goes on at Napier has been kept behind a wall of censorship since its establishment. Last November, volunteers at the site were forced to sign confidentiality agreements underpinned by the Official Secrets Act. In February, journalist Andy Aitchison was arrested in his home by five police officers after taking photos of a demonstration outside the camp—on the absurd suspicion of “criminal damage”.

A Border Force vessel brings a group of people thought to be migrants into the port city of Dover, England, from small boats, Saturday Aug. 8, 2020. The British government says it will strengthen border measures as calm summer weather has prompted a record number of people to attempt the risky sea crossing in small vessels, from northern France to England. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Patel and the Tory Party intend to inscribe their routine abuse of refugees’ fundamental rights into law later this year with a New Plan for Immigration, described as “inhumane” by the UN Refugee Agency. In the autumn, the Home Office plans to open a new immigration detention centre for 80 women in Hassockfield County Durham—the first new detention centre since 2014.

They are able to proceed with this reactionary policy in the face of popular opposition thanks to the complicity of a Labour Party serving as a “constructive opposition” and doing its best to burnish its own “patriotic” credentials. Not calling for Napier to be closed, Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, responded to the High Court ruling with a pathetic call for Tory ministers to “make a statement—urgently—to explain how this injustice occurred, who will be held to account, and how they will ensure it can never happen again.”

A terrible reminder of the consequences of the bipartisan anti-migrant agenda came on June 7, when the body of a 15-month-old boy washed up on the coast of Norway on New Year’s Day was identified as that of Artin Iran-Nejad. Artin, along with his mother, father, brother and sister, drowned while trying to cross the English Channel in a small fishing boat last October.

These horrors must be ended. Defending the rights of migrants and asylum seekers depends on building a socialist movement in the working class. Workers and young people must oppose the government’s vicious system of detention and deportation on the basis of a fight for full citizenship rights and access to jobs, housing, health care, education and welfare for all.