ACTIVISTS threw fake blood at the gates of Napier Barracks last Thursday – in protest against the conditions in which hundreds of asylum seekers are being forced to live.
An anonymous group of human rights activists has dressed in white boiler suits and masks and erected posters addressed to Home Secretary Priti Patel outside what was once a military camp in Folkestone, Kent.
The fake blood has been thrown, they say, ‘to send a clear message to Priti Patel and to the Home Office’. The boards read: ‘Protect human rights. Close Napier now. Priti Patel, there will be blood on your hands. #SolidaritywithNapier.’
One man has since been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage and remains in custody. Since then a number of protests have been held outside the barracks, both from people welcoming the asylum seekers and those who oppose the arrangements.
Napier Barracks was opened up in September by the Home Office to provide temporary accommodation to 431 men who are seeking asylum in the UK.
In recent weeks, however, many of the service users have taken to sleeping outside and going on hunger strike to demonstrate against the reportedly cramped and unhygienic living conditions.
And in addition, Covid-19 has spread through the barracks and it is claimed that more than 100 people have tested positive for the virus. The anonymous group are calling for the facility to close.
To help maintain social distancing, the Home Office announced it would move 100 service users into hotels earlier this week. It followed the publication of an open letter from the asylum seekers to the British public in which they said they felt like they were being detained.
Two petitions have also been set up calling for the closure of the facility, and MPs have also spoken out about their wish for it to shut.
A statement from the protesters on Thursday says: ‘We took this action today to amplify the message of the residents of Napier barracks, and of the community, to demand the complete closure of this inhumane camp.
‘The government’s decision earlier this week to move a number of people temporarily from the site was little more than an inadequate attempt to relieve some of the pressure being put on them from all angles to close the camp.’
Thursday’s protest followed weeks of unease at the barracks.
‘We cannot gather en-masse during these challenging times, so we cannot show the immense support and solidarity there is for these vulnerable people in such a perilous and grave situation,’ was one of the protesters’ claims.
‘But still we must find a way to make our collective voice and appeal heard. We have tried asking nicely. We signed petitions and wrote letters … but the situation is extreme; these people are desperate and they are being gravely ignored.
‘This dramatic action beseeches the government to act now and close Napier Camp.’
Bridget Chapman, from the Kent Refugee Action Network – which previously held a welcome meeting outside the barracks – said she is not surprised people are taking ‘drastic action … We have seen from our social media channels and correspondence that Napier Barracks is an issue that people feel very strongly about.
‘Although it is clearly unsafe for anyone to be kept in such dangerous conditions, any action to protect residents seems glacially slow and people don’t feel their voices are being heard.
‘We’re not surprised that people have felt the need to take more drastic action. This is an emergency. The barracks need to be closed and those inside need to be moved immediately to safe and appropriate accommodation.’
A spokesman for Kent Police said: ‘Kent Police was called following a report of a protest in Shorncliffe, Folkestone at 8.10am on Thursday, January 28. Officers attended and a 36-year-old man from the Dover area was arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage. He remains in custody.’
The Home Office has been contacted for comment. Tory Home Secretary Priti Patel last Wednesday however defended using military barracks to house asylum seekers amid calls to close them.
But Patel told Parliament that the accommodation was of a ‘very strong standard’ and was ‘in line with PHE guidance’. She added: ‘The reason why we have removed a number of asylum seekers over the weekend is actually to protect others from catching Covid-19. That is absolutely the right thing to do.’
Previously, the Home Office had said the accommodation ‘is safe, suitable, and Covid-compliant’.
That was even after a Covid-19 outbreak at the Barracks, where a number of people were ‘removed’ and put into isolation.
A man who had been living at the barracks told the PA news agency that ‘around 59 people’ were transferred off site over one weekend, although the actual number was closer to 100.
It was claimed that some were moved out of the barracks in Folkestone at short notice over last weekend: the Home Office has denied reports that people were given just 15 minutes to leave.
Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana said on Tuesday that at Napier Barracks ‘one in four people’ had tested positive for Covid-19, and called again on Patel to close the camp and to ‘provide good, safe and liveable housing instead’.
Then a doctor at the Helen Bamber Foundation, which works with refugees, described the conditions at the barracks as ‘inhumane’, and said that some residents had slept outside in protest.
Folkestone’s MP Damian Collins has also called for the closure of the barracks, saying he had raised concerns about the suitability of using the site to accommodate so many people at the start of the process.
According to Folkestone and Hythe district council (FHDC) the transfer of asylum seekers came after the surge in positive Covid-19 tests were returned to at least 120 men in the camp. The Home Office refused to confirm total numbers of positive tests, but data on the government’s official Covid-19 dashboard shows a 124% rise in cases in the ward in which the barracks is located, Folkestone Morehall and Sandgate, in the week to 20 January, with 182 cases recorded.
The outbreak had followed all the repeated warnings from humanitarian organisations and healthcare professionals over significant risks posed by Covid-19 at the site, which has also been dogged by allegations of overcrowding and poor conditions.
A statement from the council said: ‘The Home Office is responsible for Napier barracks and, in line with advice from Public Health England, the Home Office is temporarily moving a number of asylum seekers out from the Napier accommodation facility into self-isolation facilities, in order to allow others at Napier to self-isolate more easily.
‘FHDC welcomes this decision as it means greater social distancing is possible in the barracks – reducing the potential spread of Covid.
‘Approximately 100 users will be transferred over the coming days – some to hotels outside of the district and a small number to one hotel in our district. The users who are being transferred have had a negative PCR test.
‘Following the transfer they will self-isolate in a hotel for 10 days. There is no additional risk to local residents.’
That move came after the immigration minister Chris Philp said in a written parliamentary answer that the government hoped to start moving asylum seekers out of another former Ministry of Defence site, Penally barracks in Pembrokeshire, albeit in small numbers.
Clare Moseley, founder of refugee charity Care4Calais, said: ‘It’s good to see action being taken to stop the spread of Covid within the barracks. The people we talk to inside have rightly been terrified of the rapid spread of the disease.
‘We hope that the Home Office now recognises that these barracks are not appropriate for use as asylum accommodation. The best solution would be to process people’s asylum claims as quickly as possible and free them to contribute to our society.’
There have also been reports of suicide attempts in the Army barracks, and many residents went on hunger strike in protest at the conditions, which reportedly include 34 people sharing one shower.
A petition to empty the barracks and close them down launched by charity Freedom From Torture last week has already racked up thousands of signatures.
More than 7,500 signatures had been gathered, just hours after the petition went live. Bridget Chapman, Kent Refugee Action Network spokesman, said: ‘We fully back the petition to close the barracks. We had serious concerns about the suitability and safety of Napier Barracks before the facility was opened: and sadly our worst fear, that of a Covid outbreak, has been realised.
‘I simply cannot imagine the horror of being locked into a site with more than 400 people, knowing that many of them have Covid, and that it is only a matter of time before you become infected.
‘Residents of the camp say they feel utterly helpless and are begging to be moved. We understand that the facility at Pennally in Wales is being emptied and this is really good news.
‘Now we need to see both sites permanently closed and a guarantee that no one seeking asylum in the UK will be forced to live in unsafe conditions while they wait for their claim to be processed.’