Six asylum seekers have won a legal challenge against the government after a judge ruled that their accommodation in controversial barracks failed to meet a minimum standard.
The court found that Napier barracks in Folkestone, Kent, provided inadequate accommodation for asylum seekers and that the home secretary’s process for selecting people to be accommodated at the site was flawed and unlawful. It also found that residents of the barracks were unlawfully detained under purported Covid rules.
The ruling prompted calls for the home secretary, Priti Patel, to close the barracks immediately.
The claim was brought by six asylum seekers who were housed in Napier barracks between September 2020 and February 2021. All were vulnerable victims of trafficking and/or torture, who experienced a deterioration in their mental health as a result of their accommodation and were transferred elsewhere after legal proceedings were initiated.
The court heard evidence that the home secretary decided to use dormitory accommodation at the barracks despite advice from Public Health England that it was not safe to do so during the Covid pandemic.
The precautions that were taken were inadequate to prevent the spread of Covid-19, which resulted in a widespread outbreak affecting half of the almost 400 residents there.
On Thursday Mr Justice Linden ruled in favour of the men and found that the Home Office acted unlawfully when deciding the former military camp was appropriate. He referenced overcrowding and the failure to follow PHE advice among the reasons the barracks were unlawfully unsuitable.
“Whether on the basis of the issues of Covid or fire safety taken in isolation, or looking at the cumulative effect of the decision-making about and the conditions in the barracks, I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants,” he said. “Insofar as the defendant considered that the accommodation was adequate for their needs, that view was irrational.”
He found that from 15 January 2021 when an instruction was given that residents were not to leave Napier barracks without permission, the claimants were unlawfully detained.
After emptying the barracks on 9 April the home secretary began refilling the accommodation. There are currently more than 265 residents sleeping in dormitories of up to 12 people.
Since 9 April, more than 45 people have been transferred out of the barracks on the grounds of vulnerability following the threat or issuing of legal proceedings.
Sue Willman and Emily Soothill, solicitors at Deighton Pierce Glynn who acted for some of the asylum seekers in the case, said: “People seeking asylum are more vulnerable to physical and mental illness. They have the right to be treated with dignity and should not be accommodated in detention-style barracks. Almost 300 people are still accommodated at Napier and we urge Priti Patel to close the barracks once and for all.”
Satbir Singh, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said: “Today’s judgment proves that this government not only ignores its own rules but that it is reckless with people’s lives. Asylum seekers were unlawfully detained in appalling, crowded conditions. There is no place for sites like these in our communities and they must be shut down immediately.”
Liberty, which intervened in the case, also called for the closure of the barracks. Lara ten Caten, the Liberty lawyer working on the case, said: “We should all have somewhere safe to shelter, where our dignity is respected and where our needs are met. Today’s judgment leaves no doubt that Napier barracks falls far short of this, and the government’s only response can be to close it down immediately.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “During the height of the pandemic, to ensure asylum seekers were not left destitute, additional accommodation was required at extremely short notice. Such accommodation provided asylum seekers a safe and secure place to stay.
“Throughout this period our accommodation providers and subcontractors 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. We will carefully consider the ruling and our next steps.”