Bath’s Wera Hobhouse was amongst MPs from around the country who took part in a #CloseTheBarracks Day of Action to discuss concerns about the unsuitability of refugees’ accommodation, particularly during a pandemic.
Local volunteers from Bath Welcomes Refugees, Bristol-Bath Freedom from Torture and Bath for Europe met with Ms Hobhouse to ask for better treatment and living conditions for those seeking refuge in the UK.
Since 1999, UK Government policy has been to house people who are seeking refugee protection within communities. During the pandemic, the Home Office’s approach has taken a frightening turn. New forms of completely inappropriate accommodation, including disused army barracks, are looking more like permanent features of the asylum system, whilst long-term structural issues continue to go unaddressed.
People seeking asylum have no right to work, have no choice about where they are housed and have to try to survive on £39.63 a week.
Some have been forced to live in shared dormitories of up to 28 people in disused barracks in Napier in Kent and Penally in Pembrokeshire. A report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration and HM inspectorate of Prisons, published 8th March 2021, found conditions in the barracks unacceptable on many levels. Inadequate planning and lack of consultation with local services resulted in accommodation being provided in contravention of public health guidance, recommendations from the local health boards and the Fire Safety Inspectorate.
People have been exposed to the threat of transmissible illnesses – a significant outbreak of COVID- 19 this year at Napier resulted in 197 people testing positive. For those who fled torture and persecution from those in uniform, housing them in barracks is retraumatising, cruel and inhumane. Many have reported extreme deteriorations in their mental and physical health
Instead of supporting integration, the Home Office’s approach is creating a hostile environment for people seeking refugee protection. Although it seems the Home Office will be returning Penally barracks to the Ministry of Defence, the Napier barracks are expected to stay open, and the policy of housing refugees at similar sites around the country will continue.
It does not need to be like this. Since 2015, local charity, Bath Welcomes Refugees, (https://www.bathwelcomesrefugees.org.uk/), which has over 300 members, has been harnessing the goodwill of our community and has supported around 100 refugees to rebuild their lives following trauma, war and persecution, enabling them to make a positive contribution in return. Other communities around the country have been equally willing to provide a supportive welcome.
Human rights organisations and charities like Bath Welcomes Refugees and Freedom From Torture are calling for an asylum system that enables people to keep themselves safe and rebuild their lives free from persecution. People seeking asylum should be housed in homes that guarantee their safety, privacy and dignity, and which enables them to live as part of the wider community.
With this aim in mind, we are making the following demands of the Home Office:
• Immediately close the barracks and cease any plans to open further similar
accommodation. Reliance on other forms of emergency accommodation, such as hotels, should be significantly decreased and strict time limits on people’s stays there should be introduced.
- Make a full commitment to housing people seeking asylum in communities, by urgently addressing the long-standing structural issues in the management and monitoring of contracted provision, and by significantly investing in improvements to the current stock of dispersal housing.
- Commit to a vision of a fair and efficient asylum system that allows those who seek sanctuary to safely rebuild their lives as part of our communities.
- Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath, supports the closing of the barracks and commented:“The vast majority of people who seek asylum suffer from – extremely understandably – trauma. By housing asylum seekers in former military barracks, the Conservative Government is exposing vulnerable people to further trauma. And doing so during a pandemic is putting both their physical and mental health at grave risk.
- I wrote to the Home Secretary in early January on behalf of my constituents, but I have yet to have a reply.Closing Penally Camp needs to be only the start. There can be no more delay on closing Napier Barracks. Priti Patel needs to urgently find alternative accommodation for these people where social distancing is possible, with access to legal aid and medical assistance.”
- Local Councillor for Widcombe, Alison Born, also took part in Friday’s campaign and agreed that:“The conditions in these barracks are inhumane at the best of times. The current pandemic makes them even less suitable as infections cannot be controlled in such squalid living conditions which puts many lives at risk.
- The UK has a proud history of supporting refugees but we appear to have lost our way in recent years. The barracks must be closed and more suitable accommodation, with appropriate support services, should be provided.Locally, we have shown that this is possible with the support of groups like Bath Welcomes Refugees. Anything less is shameful.”