A Covid crisis foretold: Asylum seekers should never have been held in military barracks

A Covid crisis foretold: Asylum seekers should never have been held in military barracks
Comment: Despite repeated warnings that the barracks were unsuitable, the government detained hundreds of migrants in close quarters. Now it's blaming them for catching Covid, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
26 Jan, 2021
Over 400 asylum seekers are being kept at Napier Barracks in completely unsuitable accommodation [Getty]
The alarming news that there has been a Covid-19 outbreak at the migrant camp in Kent has confirmed early warnings from migrant rights activists about the poor conditions the Home Office is exposing people to, by placing them in disused military barracks. 

Back in September, when the base was set to house hundreds who had entered the country, politicians, charities and human rights organisations spoke out against the decision. The "temporary accommodation" was deemed unfit, the facilities poor, space limited, safety inadequate. All these factors combined, it was argued, would lead to compromising the psychological as well a physical health of migrants held there.

The warnings were ignored by the government, too wrapped up in staging xenophobic political theatre to care about the people it was locking up. Since then, the reality that has unfolded over the last few months for the hundreds of migrants brought to the Napier Barracks have proved the veracity of all the warnings.

A desperate letter released by asylum seekers in Napier Barracks states that at least 120 people of the 400 inside, have tested positive for Covid-19. Despite knowing earlier this month that there were cases of Covid-19 inside the camp, Clearsprings - the private company hired by the Home Office to run the camp - barely changed its approach to running the facility.

Self-isolating and social distancing is practically impossible, the migrants explained, despite the infection rate increasing

Around 15 people share a single room, toilet and shower facilities, and communal dining continues in the canteen. Leaked video footage also shows people who are afraid for their lives, urging staff inside the camp to test them and being turned away. Self-isolating and social distancing is practically impossible, the migrants explained, despite the infection rate increasing. 

The government, in line with its usual strategy of blaming those it harms, responded by effectively claiming the situation was of the migrants' own doing, given the quality of the facilities provided. Indeed, the immigration compliance minister Chris Philp, maintained that the Home Office provides "safe, warm, Covid secure suitable accommodation". Dozens of alleged cases of infection, video footage of the appalling conditions, and a single nurse on site to deal with the growing chaos, all suggest otherwise. 

Philp even told those suffering the outcomes of xenophobic Tory policies that they shouldn't have made the journey in the first place. The message is clear: if you risk your life making the journey across the channel in a flimsy boat, flee war, oppression and poverty, or simply desire a better future by coming to the UK, you will be punished by being effectively imprisoned in a hotbed of infections.

Even volunteers who in the past have supported detainees, can no longer have access to the barracks due to the current outbreak. The lack of legal and medical support was already a considerable issue. Now, the situation feels even more hopeless, which has led, in recent weeks, to two people detained at Napier attempting suicide. 

The government stated, back in the autumn, that this was an emergency "solution", that it would be temporary until asylum seekers were processed and their fate decided, but it is becoming clearer that the Home Office now seeks to prolong its use of the site. 

It is difficult to believe that our leaders didn't see this coming. Aside from the fact that groups campaigned over such fears from the beginning, the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that confining a large group of people will only endanger lives and put a severe strain on health services. Many called for the emptying of prisons and detention centres as serious concerns were raised over the looming disastrous public health crisis. 

Furthermore, the barracks are in Kent which is also where the new variant of Covid-19 was also initially detected, and is one of the areas most impacted by the virus. In so many ways, the outbreak in Napier was a disaster waiting to happen. 

Everything points to the fact that the government will do nothing to prevent further disaster at the migrant camp unless they are forced to do so. The letter released by detainees is not only a call for help, but a call to action for us all. It is yet another reminder that neither the pandemic, nor the government's response to it, is the "great leveller" we were told it was.

In so many ways, the outbreak in Napier was a disaster waiting to happen

The poor, those with existing health issues, those living in crowded spaces, those unable to work from home, all continue to be hit hardest by the pandemic. People of colour are overrepresented given the systematic discrimination they face in the job market, the housing market, or healthcare - while also being overrepresented in front-line jobs. 

The case of the incarcerated in general, and migrants in particular, is even worse. Having survived a perilous journey, suffering from health problems, and without access to basic goods, they are confined in small spaces, living on top of one another.

Kept out of sight, their plight is ignored. When it is raised, they are accused of bringing it upon themselves - just as we are told the poor, children in need of school meals, the victims of police violence, or even the families who died in Grenfell, only have themselves to blame.

The question we face as a society is, in many ways a simple one: will we continue to allow the rich to divide us, pit us against one another, and blame us for the conditions they impose upon us? Or will we unite and fight them back.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.