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THE Home Office’s decision to force asylum-seekers to live in squalid and overcrowded ex-army barracks during the pandemic was unlawful, the High Court ruled today.
The damning ruling found that conditions at Napier Barracks in Folkestone were inadequate and that the process of allocating asylum-seekers to the site was flawed and unlawful.
For a period of time residents were also falsely imprisoned at the barracks under the pretext of Covid restrictions, the court ruled.
The legal challenge was brought by six former Napier residents, all said to be victims of trafficking and/or torture, who argued that conditions at the site posed a “real and immediate risk to life and of ill-treatment.”
The ruling has prompted fresh calls for the barracks, where almost 300 asylum-seekers are still being held, to be shut down immediately.
But in a statement slammed as “despicable” by campaigners, the Home Office vowed today to continue using the site in Kent.
Mr Justice Linden’s judgement followed hearings that took place in April.
He found that conditions at the barracks “fell below the minimum standard” and that the Home Office acted unlawfully when deciding that the barracks were appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers.
The ruling paves the way for a large damages claim against Home Secretary Priti Patel.
“I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants,” Justice Linden said.
“Insofar as the defendant considered that the accommodation was adequate for their needs, that view was irrational.”
The Home Office began using Napier Barracks as asylum-seeker accommodation in September last year.
The court heard how ministers ignored warnings from Public Health England (PHE) about Covid-19 risks and began housing men at the site before implementing recommendations.
This led to a mass outbreak at the site in January, where half of the 400 residents contracted Covid-19.
In his ruling, Justice Linden said the overcrowding and risk of infection meant that it was “virtually inevitable that large numbers of residents would contract Covid-19.”
Despite repeated concerns raised over months about safety, Ms Patel and Immigration Minister Chris Philps continued to defend the site, even blaming the refugees for the surge in Covid-19 infections.
Responding to the court’s decision, an asylum-seeker who was held at Napier for three months earlier this year said he felt that “justice has finally been done.”
He told the Morning Star: “Deep down in my heart I knew that [the accommodation] was not right, this [was] not legal, but hearing from the High Court that using this place as asylum accommodation was unlawful just proves that we were right.
“We were really ignored when we were there. Now we have been heard.”
The asylum-seeker, who asked to remain anonymous, added that the only reasonable solution now was to close the camp.
“The people who were there from the first round, they have been damaged mentally and physically and this damage should not be done to the current residents and that place should be closed,” he said.
Rights groups echoed his calls for the site to be closed, with Refugee Action head of campaigns Mariam Kemple saying: “This judgement vindicates all those who repeatedly told the government that recklessly forcing hundreds of refugees into crowded camps during a killer pandemic was a gamble with people’s lives.”
Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants chief executive Satbir Singh said: “Abandoned, ramshackle military barracks are totally unsuitable sites to house anyone, much less victims of torture or trafficking and people fleeing atrocities.
“To do so was a cruel and politically motivated decision from a government that consistently puts people’s lives in danger and hopes to get away with it.
“There is no place for sites like these in our communities and they must be shut down immediately.”
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds demanded an explanation as to “how this injustice occurred.”
The judge also criticised the “detention-like” conditions at the camp, which is surrounded by barbed wire and security.
He said that earlier this year, when asylum-seekers were ordered not to leave the camp during the outbreak, the claimants had been unlawfully detained.
However, he declined to rule that the barracks could never be used to house asylum-seekers, saying that his findings were based on the conditions the six men faced.
A Home Office spokesperson said it was disappointed by the judgement which was made before “significant” improvements to the site.
“Such accommodation provided asylum-seekers a safe and secure place to stay,” they said. “Throughout this period our accommodation providers and subcontractors have made improvements to the site and continue to do so.
“Napier will continue to operate and provide safe and secure accommodation. We will carefully consider the ruling and our next steps.”
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