Humane conditions? Sanitary? Safe? Most would argue not.Collage by Alex Leggatt - twitter/UNHRC, twitter/heartsouthnews, twitter/radicalhoneybee, twitter/freefromtorture

Isn’t it now obvious that Napier barracks is simply a quasi-detention centre? Asylum seekers were told they would only be temporarily housed in the barracks, yet many have been confined to the site for months with little or no information on their future in the UK.

The repurposed Ministry of Defence barracks in Kent have been used by the government since September 21st in an ostensible attempt to provide ‘suitable’ accommodation for asylum seekers while their claims are processed. The 400 male asylum seekers held in the barracks are reportedly crammed into accommodation blocks that house up to 28 people in one room, and only recently have fabric sheets and plywood screens been installed to provide some degree of privacy. Yet these measures still provide the residents with no protection from Covid-19.

While the government has pledged to overhaul the “fundamentally broken” asylum system, Priti Patel’s political bolstering of reconfiguring the system to make it “firm and fair” seems callous in the face of unfolding events at Napier. Since a fire broke out on the site last month, reports have emerged of no heating and electricity in all but one of the blocks, difficulties in accessing food, and the obstruction of voluntary services, such as legal aid, for the asylum seekers.

The fire was not unpredictable – in fact it was entirely anticipated. Human rights watchdogs, refugee organisations, and medical professionals have been warning of the unsafe, unsanitary, and frankly inhumane conditions of the barracks since their inception. In a joint letter, coordinated by Doctors of World, Freedom from Torture and the Helen Bamber Foundation, and signed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Faculty of Public Health, signatories called for the barracks to be closed, detailing that while “these sites are not classified as detention centres, the sites bear many of the hallmarks of detention and operate like an open prison.”

“We’ve shamefully entered a toxic political climate of stopping, pointing, and pouring scorn not just on those in need, but also those who endeavour to help.”

Even though these concerns were articulated by medical and legal professionals months prior to the Napier barracks fire, they were met with little avail. The government also did not change its course despite hunger strikes by residents, numerous suicide attempts, and a Covid-19 outbreak in Napier at the beginning of the year, with at least 120 men testing positive. Instead, the Home Office has sinisterly asked volunteers entering the site to sign confidentiality agreements in an attempt to cover up the horror of Napier’s conditions.

So, the question is why? Why is the government so resolved on housing asylum seekers at Napier?

Napier is part of the government’s wider criminalisation and stigmatisation of asylum seekers. Inundated with pejorative branding as “migrants” and “service users” by the immigration compliance minister and home secretary, the legitimate claims of asylum seekers continue to be obscured by the government’s political lexicon of ‘illegal crossings’ and ′criminal trade.′ As if this divisive polarisation wasn’t enough, the scornful brandishing of lawyers who support asylum seekers’ claims as “do gooders” and “lefty lawyers” further demonstrates the hatred that our government attempts to whip up. We’ve shamefully entered a toxic political climate of stopping, pointing, and pouring scorn not just on those in need, but also those who endeavour to help.

The constructed distinction between ‘legitimate’ – thus perceived to be deserving – and ‘illegitimate’ asylum claims has been actively deployed by the government to justify its ongoing hostile policies. Asylum seekers currently live on just over £5 a day, many are denied the right to work, and recent figures indicate that more than 36,000 asylum seekers have had to wait longer than six months for their claims to be processed.

“The Home Secretary ... continues to construct asylum seekers as suspect characters with cunning plots.”

To be clear, there is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ asylum seeker – this paradoxical conception undermines the unimaginable struggles that asylum seekers must endure to reach the UK. As a letter signed by the ‘Asylum Seekers of the Napier Barracks’ writes: “It is vital to understand that no one chooses to leave the country that they were born in, no one choose to leave their family and loved ones behind. We came to this country to save our lives.” The Home Secretary knows this, yet she continues to construct asylum seekers as suspect characters with cunning plots to subvert British immigration law.

During a time of looming economic crisis, an ongoing pandemic, and an ideologically intransigent government bent on shrinking state welfare, asylum seekers and migrants are yet again the scapegoats of choice. This bruising brandishing was flagrantly evident in Patel’s statement responding to the Napier fire, an event she described as “deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country who are providing this accommodation.” Patel went on to threaten “robust” police action against those “putting lives at risk” and called it an “insult to say that [the barracks are] not good enough [accommodation] for these individuals.”

Instead of acknowledging the destitute conditions of the barracks, the Home Secretary has seized the opportunity to use Napier as a mere pawn in the Conservatives’ culture war. Patel’s nationalistic tub-thumping is a form of gaslighting, deflecting the government’s inhumanity onto asylum seekers – again subverting their legal entitlement to asylum into a luxury oh so benevolently bestowed upon them by the government. The fact Patel that is engaging with – and actively producing – this moral panic for political capital is an unsurprising disgrace, and not one without consequence: far-right activists have been emboldened to stage protests outside the barracks, continuing on from harassment asylum seekers faced last year.


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Napier is not just a symbol of the government’s incompetence but also of its unconscionable cruelty. These asylum seekers have already experienced immeasurable traumas. The government should not be treating them with suspension and stigma. So yes, Priti Patel has certainly got one thing right: our asylum system is broken. But let me ask you this: who broke it?