BISHOPS have welcomed a High Court ruling that housing asylum-seekers in a former military barracks near Folkestone is unlawful.
The Home Office has placed hundreds of people who crossed the Channel to seek refuge in Britain at Napier Barracks, in Kent, since last summer. Conditions at the Ministry of Defence site are poor, however: dozens of migrants are living in ageing dormitories covered in peeling paint.
There have been outbreaks of Covid-19, as well as a fire that, earlier this year, reportedly cut off electricity, heating, and water for the hundreds of asylum-seekers there.
In an open letter in February, 13 Church of England bishops joined dozens of other faith leaders in demanding the Home Office stop housing asylum-seekers in military barracks (News, 19 February).
Last week, the High Court ruled in favour of six asylum-seekers’ case against the Home Office. They had claimed that the department had placed them in “unsafe” conditions at Napier Barracks.
The judge, Mr Justice Linden, said in his judgment: “I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants.”
The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, one of the open letter’s signatories, said on Tuesday that volunteers in the diocese had seen for themselves the “appalling situation” in the barracks. “People who have fled from all manner of despair, looking for hope but finding detention and confinement in squalid and unsafe conditions.”
The Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Jonathan Clark, said that it had been clear to any fair-minded observer that “putting people in barracks like this was neither dignified nor safe”.
“The Home Office should be able to do better than that,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s taking people who’ve had very traumatic experiences — often, they’ve been detained illegally or tortured — and then just condemning them to repeat it.”
The Revd Bob Weldon, whose Folkestone parish includes the barracks, visits the site weekly with other chaplains, and regularly speaks with the residents.
He said: “When we visit the site, we see lots of the residents just sitting around, staring into space. It is almost as if they have given up. I spoke to one of the residents, and he told me he did not need to be accommodated at the Hilton: he just wanted to be acknowledged as a human being.”
During the hearing at the High Court in April, it emerged that Public Health England had warned the Home Office that the barracks were not appropriate accommodation because of the risk that the coronavirus could spread through the cramped quarters.
Despite the judge’s conclusion that use of the barracks is unlawful, however, and the potential now for the six asylum-seekers to seek damages from the Home Secretary, the Home Office has said that it will continue to use the barracks for the time being.
The bishops said that the ruling exemplified a broader issue with the approach to asylum-seekers by the Government. “From this ruling, we need to look at how to move that baseline of conversation that says it was ever acceptable to house people in this way,” Bishop Hudson-Wilkin said.
“We must change so we begin to see not refugees, but brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, children, mothers and fathers. These are human beings with hopes and dreams, not statistics or problems to be locked away.”
Bishop Clark said: “People need to be accommodated in a way that recognises, from a Christian point of view, that the dignity of every human being is exactly the same as any other human being. But that’s not what we’ve been doing in this way and in many other parts of our asylum system.”
There was a “culture of disbelief” about asylum applications which affected how the system treated those seeking refuge in Britain, he said, “and that just altogether creates a climate in which their real human dignity is not really recognised”.