A former army barracks used by the Home Office to house asylum seekers is “unsafe and entirely unsuitable”, the High Court has heard.
The Napier Barracks in Kent has been used to accommodate hundreds of asylum seekers since last September, despite the Home Office being warned by Public Health England that it was unsuitable.
Six asylum seekers previously housed at the barracks, all of whom are said to be “victims of either torture or human trafficking or both”, say conditions are “appalling”, with no mental health support and just one nurse on site.
Almost 200 people tested positive for coronavirus during an outbreak at the barracks in January and February, which one NHS official who visited Napier said was “inevitable” given the conditions at the site, the court heard.
At the start of a two-day hearing on Wednesday, lawyers representing the six men said accommodating asylum seekers at the barracks was a breach of their human rights and could amount to false imprisonment.
They also argue the Home Office failed to put in place a process to prevent “particularly vulnerable asylum seekers” being accommodated at the barracks.
Opening the claimants’ case at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Tom Hickman QC – representing four of the six men – said: “The camp was squalid, ill-equipped, lacking in personal privacy and, most fundamentally of all, unsafe.
“Those moved there, including the claimants, were exposed to conditions that had serious detrimental impacts on their mental health and, indeed, their physical health, in contracting Covid-19.
“In terms of the Covid-19 situation, it is no exaggeration to say that moving the claimants and other people to the barracks exposed them to an exceptionally high risk.”
Hickman told the court that “45 people or thereabouts were moved into the barracks last week”, adding that “it appears to be the intention to gradually refill the camp”.
He also said that there had been “seven suicide attempts (and) seven serious incidents of self-harm” at the barracks since it had been in use.
In written submissions, Hickman said Public Health England told the Home Office in September that the barracks was not suitable and that, if there was a Covid-19 outbreak at the site, “the fallout would be significant”.
He said asylum seekers were housed in groups of 14 “in a single dormitory, sharing washing and toilet facilities with 14 other persons”.
This meant that, once coronavirus broke out at the barracks, “all residents were exposed, increasing the risk already inherent in the accommodation”, Mr Hickman said.
He added: “There is no evidence that either the second national lockdown in November or the subsequent discovery of the ‘Kent variant’ which led to a third national lockdown prompted reconsideration of the compatibility of the use of the barracks.”
Hickman also said that “it is apparent from the Home Office’s evidence that a number of alternatives to barracks accommodation were considered and proposed to ministers as potential options”.
But, he added, “the decision not to adopt alternatives was essentially political, not driven by necessity”.
Hickman said the barracks, which is more than 100 years old and was previously used by the Ministry of Defence as temporary accommodation for soldiers, was “inappropriate for asylum seekers”.
He said the site was “overcrowded and felt to residents like a prison”, adding: “The conditions are prison-like, they are military, with an eight-foot perimeter fence, barbed wire, unformed guards, curfews and padlocks on the gates.”
Hickman told the court that the “appalling conditions” at Napier “acted as recurring triggers for traumatic flashbacks”, particularly for asylum seekers who were previously victims of torture.
The Home Office is defending the claim and argues that housing asylum seekers at Napier Barracks is lawful.