Judge rules UK unlawfully held migrants in cramped barracks

Decision in favour of six asylum seekers clears the way for damages claim against the government

A resident of Napier Barracks, a former military barracks that is being used to house asylum seekers, returns to the barracks after attending an event held in solidarity with the migrants, in Folkestone, southeast England on May 22, 2021.  / AFP / Ben STANSALL
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Six asylum seekers are expected to secure damages from the UK government after winning a legal battle over the conditions at an army barracks used as temporary housing for migrants.

The UK's High Court ruled that Napier Barracks in Kent, south-east England, fell "below the minimum standard" while housing hundreds of asylum seekers since last September. Officials had said that the site was unsuitable and posed a fire risk.

Mr Justice Linden said it was inevitable there would be a major Covid-19 outbreak at the camp where 12 to 14 men were sharing dormitories – which happened in January 2021.

The finding is an embarrassment for Home Secretary Priti Patel, who blamed the spread of Covid-19 to about 200 people at the camp on residents "not following the rules".

She pursues a tough line against migrants but has so far failed to deliver on a promise to limit the number of migrants crossing to the UK in small boats, which have hit record numbers in 2021.

Despite demands from campaigners that the barracks be shut down, her department insisted that it would continue to operate.

The six men, all victims of torture or trafficking and from Sudan, Eritrea, Palestine and Kuwait, argued at the High Court that Britain was unlawfully keeping people at the barracks, which operated a curfew and was surrounded by a 2.5-metre fence.

They claimed there was a “real and immediate” risk to their lives from an outbreak of Covid-19, and that authorities had failed to screen those most at risk.

"I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants," the judge said in the ruling.

Napier at its peak was home to more than 400 men at one time and the conditions – condemned as filthy by an independent watchdog – prompted some residents to go on hunger strike.

Prison inspectors in March concluded there were "fundamental failures of leadership and planning" by the government that had led to "dangerous shortcomings" in the standard of accommodation.

On the outskirts of the coastal town of Folkestone, Napier houses many migrants who crossed the English Channel in boats in search of a new life in the UK. At least four of the six who brought the claim arrived by boat, with many suffering torture and abuse during the journey, according to the ruling.

Despite the dangers, more than 3,000 people have reportedly crossed the Channel from northern Europe in 2021, double the number that tried during the same period last year. Authorities say hundreds more attempted the journey in the past few days.

The barracks was opened in September last year as a result of a surge in applications and difficulties in housing people because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The government said it would consider the ruling before deciding on its next step.

"During the height of the pandemic, to ensure asylum seekers were not left destitute, additional accommodation was required at extremely short notice," said a Home Office representative.

“Such accommodation provided asylum seekers a safe and secure place to stay. Throughout this period our accommodation providers and sub-contractors have made improvements to the site and continue to do so.

“It is disappointing that this judgment was reached on the basis of the site prior to the significant improvement works which have taken place in difficult circumstances. Napier will continue to operate and provide safe and secure accommodation."