A parliamentary debate over the Napier Barracks only fueled the furious division between the Home Office, vulnerable refugees and the High Court.
The debate, which took place yesterday (June 10), came after the High Court ruled that the Home Office acted illegally by housing asylum seekers in the barracks near Folkestone.
Home Secretary Priti Patel and Home Office Undersecretary Kevin Foster MP were not present as the latter was not present due to family mourning.
In their absence, Chris Philp MP, who grew up in Orpington, represented the Home Office.
Untold Stories – a new newsletter bringing together the best of journalism on and for our underserved and minority communities in the South East.
Just tap here to enter your email address and get news, features, and more straight to your inbox.
And subscribe to the KentLive newsletter here for the latest news and updates.
Throughout the debate a number of familiar topics emerged: from criticisms of Public Health England and the British Red Cross to moving comments on whether the barracks, which were built during World War I, were still fit for purpose.
However, very few concrete answers have emerged. The High Court ruling appears to have done little more than strengthen the Home Office’s position that he had no reason to apologize, despite his recent loss.
As a result, there was not much to take away from the debate.
Instead, there were a few key themes that require closer inspection.
Below, we explore the four biggest misconceptions about Napier Barracks discussed in yesterday’s debate and the truth behind them.
1. “If the barracks were good enough for the troops, then why aren’t they suitable for refugees? “
This emotionally charged question came up several times.
However, many of those who asked this question ignored the point raised by the Chief Inspector of Prisons following an inspection in February 2021.
Independent inspectors found conditions in Napier to be “poor, dilapidated and unsuitable for long-term accommodation.”
The High Court decision sided with the Home Office, saying the accommodation was not “sleazy” and was closer to adequacy.
However, that doesn’t mean the accommodations are perfect – and they have been described as “less than pristine”.
Critically – as one MP pointed out – whether they were soldiers and not refugees living in conditions which caused “a significant risk of injury or self-harm and attempted suicide” and saw a COVID outbreak with more than half of residents infected, the problem may well have been taken more seriously by the responsible office.
On several occasions, residents of Napier have said they felt suicidal, self-harm or even attempted to end their own life while in the accommodation.
Before being used in 2020, the barracks had been unused for four to five years by the military.
Its redevelopment was already planned after a 2014 report said the buildings “were never intended for long-term use” and that the conversion of existing blocks was “inappropriate”.
In September 2020, shortly before the accommodation was used to house refugees, permission was granted to developer Taylor Wimpey who planned to demolish the barracks and redevelop the area.
These details indicate that on many levels the buildings may not have been suitable for the long-term housing of vulnerable people.
2. “If Napier Barracks is so bad, why do people still come to the UK to seek asylum? “
This question is frequently asked about dangerous Channel crossings.
The reasons people want to move to the UK are varied, but among them are social attractions such as family ties, knowledge of the language of the country they are moving to or a national reputation for tolerance.
Although several MPs have pointed out that countries like Italy, Germany and France are all safe places, many refugees may have relatives in the UK, which means their best bet is not to to settle in continental Europe but to find a community within their family or those of their country of origin.
The far right has also grown across Europe, with political parties like the National Rally of Marine Le Pen, the AfD in Germany and the Italian Five Star Movement gaining momentum in recent years.
Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is an explicitly anti-refugee head of government.
This change in attitude may mean that refugees have legitimate reasons to believe that the political climate in many European countries is hostile to them.
And, as many can probably understand, moving to a new country is pretty scary, let alone going somewhere where you don’t know the language and don’t have a family by your side.
3. The Home Office “did everything in our power to provide shelter to those in need”
This was MP Chris Philp’s most-repeated line during yesterday’s debate, pointing out that the accommodation was acquired on short notice and that improvements were made as quickly as possible to make it fit for purpose.
However, there is plenty of evidence to contradict this claim.
Aside from the Chief Prison Inspector’s report, advice from Public Health England and the British Red Cross was that the facilities could not be secured against COVID while still functioning as shared dormitories.
The arrangements at the time left no room for individuals for effective social distancing, with 28 people in one room before any adjustments were made.
That number then dropped to 14, still crowded.
The advice from Public Health England leaked in the decision was that the maximum number of people in a dormitory should be six.
Given that, and the fact that the lack of isolation facilities which meant site-wide closures were needed in the event of an outbreak amounted to “unlawful imprisonment,” according to the judge’s ruling.
The idea that Napier was the best that could be done is questionable in light of the decision.
There were also warnings that the fire station was not immune to fires before a fire broke out in January.
When asked to comment on this, MP Chris Philp said the Home Office “Make[s] absolutely no apologies “for his efforts.
4. On the suitability of the Napier Barracks for those fleeing war and torture
Even though these details are not representative of Napier after adjustments were made – something the Home Office has repeatedly insisted they took place – one issue remains unanswered.
Many of those who live in Napier are fleeing countries like Eritrea, Sudan or Syria, which have experienced humanitarian crises and civil wars over the past decade.
The presence of yoga sessions, soccer balls or a library at Napier Barracks – all of which have been mentioned repeatedly in the parliamentary debate – does not erase the fact that the building itself is a military installation .
This fact is troubling given that asylum seekers placed in Napier often suffer trauma related to conflict and war.
Bridget Chapman, of the Kent Refugee Action Network, argued that Napier himself risks “re-traumatizing” those who have had negative experiences in a military context and needlessly recalls the conditions refugees tried to flee.
Contrary to these activist suggestions, the debate in Parliament saw the reassessment of human rights law as a means of lifting the “blockage” of the new system desired by the Ministry of the Interior.