Home Office attempts a cover up at migrant camps…before conceding possible human rights breaches

Investigations and a court case are bringing some awkward facts to light for Patel's department.

Asylum seekers in accommodation at Napier Barracks

Written by Raoul Walawalker is a feature writer at ImmiNews.

In crime films, there’s often a scene when the police are banging at the door. The suspect has to hide the incriminating evidence before letting them in.  

The Home Office must have been taking notes, after it announced last week that the two ‘migrant camps’ it’s set up in the UK last year would be inspected this week by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

Since then, officials have been trying to make it seem as if their plan of keeping asylum seekers in long-disused army camps has been legal and responsible – and not at all the sort of project that might have exacerbated health concerns, prompted protests, suicide attempts, a hunger strike or a mass Covid-19 outbreak.

Covid-19 health signs and hand sanitiser points reportedly went up for the very first time just two days ago around the walls of buildings at the disused army camp in Penally, Wales, which has housed 200 asylum seekers for six months.

Napier tapers off

It also emerged yesterday in a High Court hearing that the number of asylum seekers still housed at Napier Barracks, a disused barracks in Folkestone, is now only 63. This means that hundreds of asylum seekers have been relocated quietly and very recently.

Initially, there were 400 people there. This number dropped following news of a Covid-19 outbreak – long-feared – which infected 120 people at the end of January, and after which 100 non-infected residents were moved out. The rest were instructed to self-isolate despite minimal scope for social-distancing.

But any chance of a bigger cover-up of camp conditions seems to have been hampered as a High Court hearing yesterday heard that the Home Office had disregarded advice that given by Public Health England on September 7th that the barracks were not ‘suitable.’

The remote hearing was brought by six asylum seekers formerly at the camp, all said to be ‘survivors of torture and/or human trafficking.’ They’re being represented by lawyers Matthew Gold and Deighton Pierce Glynn.

Their case argues that conditions at Napier Barracks breach asylum seekers’ human rights, and that the Home Office has breached its duty to provide adequate accommodation. It will now be considered at a full hearing later this year.

Strong case

Lawyers for the Home Office conceded that the majority of the men’s claims were ‘arguable’ after documents which undermined its written defence were discovered shortly before the hearing.

The Home Office’s barrister Lisa Giovannetti QC told the court that, after reviewing ‘a large volume of internal emails’ and other documents, she was ‘not satisfied that the factual foundation is sufficiently solid or clear’ for her to oppose permission for their legal challenge being granted.

Of the 63 people still housed at the site, none are currently ‘under isolation,’ the court heard. Lawyers for the asylums seekers earlier told the court that the Home Office ‘knew or ought to have known of the impossibility of effective means of controlling or containing infection at the barracks.’

Shu Shin Luh, representing two of the men, said in written submissions that there were ‘present and continuing’ risks to asylum seekers at Napier Barracks because of the danger of Covid-19.

“Yet, notwithstanding this, the defendant chose to accommodate asylum seekers during a Covid-19 pandemic in accommodation against the advice of Public Health England, and in numbers which made it impossible to socially distance,” she added.

Full hearing

Ms Giovannetti said the Home Office was doing ‘everything in the meantime,’ but also said that the kitchens are still not working in the aftermath of a fire, and food was still having to be delivered to the barracks.

At the end of the hearing, permission was granted for the men’s claims to proceed to a full hearing in April.

Whether the barracks continues to be used longer-term presumably will be something to look out for, given that reports have resurfaced from years ago describing the building as ‘unsuitable’ for use and confirming it was slated for demolition.

Meanwhile, it emerged last week that despite local authority objections, the Home Office has intentions to submit an application for planning permission to continue to use the Penally site for a further six months from March until September. None of this is a good look for ministers.

ImmiNews is part of an organisation of UK and Ireland immigration lawyers.

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