Asylum seekers housed in former military barracks are facing what’s been described as a mental health crisis after NGOs withdrew their support in response to a “draconian” non-disclosure agreement forced on them by the UK Home Office.
Around 400 asylum seekers are packed into the one-storey redbrick blocks at the Napier Barracks in Kent. Each block only has two toilets and showers. The only form of privacy or personal space, residents say, comes in the form of white sheets hung from poles around their bug-infested beds. Outside, the tarmacked courtyard is lifeless. Barbed wire snakes along the outer fence. For many, it’s like being in a prison.
“I do not sleep during the night,” says Omar, a Sudanese asylum seeker who crossed by boat from Calais in France, and arrived at Napier just over a month ago. He spoke on the condition of only being identified by a pseudonym. “All night I’m just lying there overthinking what I have to do with my life until 5AM, 6AM or 7AM. I can’t work. I can’t study. I’m losing my life.”
Omar is, like everyone else at the barracks, waiting for the government to decide whether he is permitted to stay in the country and forge a new life or be summarily deported to his home country where he says he faced death threats. Increasingly, after the Home Office dropped its target to make asylum decisions within six months, it can take more than a year to find out.
Some precious relief in Napier came through support provided by one of the only independent NGOs granted access, Care4Calais, whose volunteers provided clothing and supplies, legal advice, and a friendly face to break the monotony of this bleak limbo.
But just over a week ago volunteers were told they must sign non-disclosure agreements bound by the Official Secrets Act if they wanted to continue work inside. Breach of the contract, subject to legislation designed to protect national security, could see “external parties” such as volunteers that share information about asylum seekers or the facility imprisoned. Care4Calais has refused to sign what it says is a “draconian” attempt at preventing scrutiny of Napier following damning reports of conditions and hasn’t set foot in the facility since.
“We met with other organisations at the end of last week and decided to oppose the agreement together,” says Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais. “But the decision to use Napier as an asylum processing centre was done very quickly by the Home Office. Not everything that should be in place is in place and there’s no provision for mental health support, which is disastrous. There is a real need for voluntary organisations.”
Kay Marsh, community engagement coordinator for Samphire, another humanitarian organisation that has stopped its work in Napier, said: “Approval is being blocked at a time when people quite clearly need outside help. There's a lot more people wanting to go in to offer English classes and wellbeing sessions and they're being blocked. I'm currently not going in and don't have any plans to anytime soon.”
It is understood the only NGO still operating in Napier is Migrant Help, which receives government funding and already has a confidentiality agreement in place. “We are working closely with the accommodation provider and the Home Office to ensure residents' needs are met,” said a spokesperson in a statement. “We’ve received many positive offers of further support from local charities and businesses in the area and are currently coordinating further on site response. However, we do not have the authority to decide which organisations are allowed on the site, this decision lies with the accommodation provider.”
In a series of interviews with VICE World News, human rights organisations, lawyers, and healthcare bodies have warned the agreement imposed by Clearsprings Ready Homes, the private contractor that runs Napier, is blocking “crucial” support to refugees and is accelerating a mental health crisis that has already seen two suicide attempts, a hunger strike and protests by asylum seekers distraught with conditions inside the Ministry of Defence site, which began processing claims in September.
Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, said the Napier Barracks and its counterpart in Penally, Wales, are “inhuman places to hold people who have fled war and persecution” and called for them to be “shut down immediately”.
“We have serious concerns about the mental and physical health of often-traumatised people forced to live behind barbed wire and high fences so close to each other in the middle of a pandemic,” he added. “Home Office ministers are failing in their duty of care to people in the asylum system.”
Bridget Chapman of the Kent Refugee Action Network said the facility was “bound to be retraumatising” and that “all of the fears [about Napier’s inadequacy] have been realised”. Raising concerns about the lengthy waiting times for asylum applications, Chapman added: “The government needs to commit urgently to speeding up decisions – this would stop those applying for asylum being left in limbo for unnecessarily long periods of time and would also free up interim accommodation so that totally inappropriate facilities like the Napier and Penally Barracks did not have to be used.”
Over the past month an Iranian man was taken to hospital after attempting to take his own life with a sharp object, one of at least two attempted suicides at the barracks. In a separate incident, a Sudanese asylum seeker refused food for at least four days after repeatedly asking when he would be moved. Dozens of asylum seekers were also placed in quarantine within their cramped block after one tested positive for coronavirus. It led to dozens of asylum seekers protesting over lack of information from the Home Office and contractor.
In a joint letter to Priti Patel, the home secretary, and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, last week, a coalition of organisations representing medical professionals and patients including the British Medical Association and Doctors of the World called for an “immediate end” to the use of Ministry of Defence sites for asylum processing, criticising the “lack of adequate health provision”.
Far-right activists have also been targeting Napier, physically harassing asylum seekers and volunteers, and spreading falsehoods about them on social media platforms to an audience of hundreds of thousands.
“It’s absolutely crazy,” adds Moseley of Care4Calais. “These guys have crossed the Sahara, they have survived Libya, they've crossed the Mediterranean, they slept rough in Calais for months being bullied by police, and now, after all that they've endured, they're in the UK and it’s here they try to commit suicide. They’re under immense amounts of stress, especially as the government is trying really hard to deport people in any way possible at the moment.”
Inside Napier, the impact of the stress and uncertainty is hitting some particularly hard. “Every day is the same thing,” says Omar, the asylum seeker from Sudan. “Everyone is in this situation. Some people can’t handle it. I saw police arrive [after one of the suicide attempts] and videos of the blood in the room.”
The Napier barracks have been repurposed into “initial accommodation” for asylum seekers, short-term housing where they are supposed to normally stay “three to four weeks” before they are moved to longer-term accommodation. But legal experts say that in many cases, asylum seekers are being made to stay much longer.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The wellbeing of asylum seekers is taken extremely seriously and those at Napier Barracks are staying in safe, Covid-compliant conditions. All staff encountering asylum seekers are trained to identify vulnerabilities and where safeguarding issues are identified they will make a risk level assessment.”
Clearsprings Ready Homes did not respond to a request for comment.