Housing asylum seekers in disused army barracks puts them at risk of covid-19

The covid-19 pandemic has brought particular challenges for people seeking asylum in the UK. Already with poor health outcomes, torture survivors’ and other asylum seekers’ vulnerability to covid-19 is increased, due to ethnicity, poverty, physical and psychological health conditions often related to past torture, and constant stress and anxiety about being returned to the country from which they fled. 

Since September 2020, the government has been housing up to 700 asylum seekers in disused army barracks, blaming the pandemic for lack of available housing in the community. Single men are sleeping 28+ to a room, in bunk beds separated by sheets, and sharing bathroom facilities. There are reports from residents of inadequate provision of supplies of masks, hand sanitiser, and soap.

Freedom from Torture, along with the British Medical Association, Faculty of Public Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Doctors of the World and the Helen Bamber Foundation, wrote to the government in November last year, warning them of the potentially catastrophic consequences of housing asylum seekers in the barracks. Our warnings were dismissed, as were earlier warnings from public health experts and doctors.

Recently, a covid-19 outbreak was reported in Napier barracks in Kent, currently housing around 400 asylum seekers. The number reported to have tested positive is 120 and rising.

The covid-19 guidance for providers of accommodation for asylum seekers states that accommodation providers should: 

“identify single-rooms with en suite bathroom facilities for all residents, which should be suitable for self-isolation; if single occupancy accommodation is not available, accommodation where cohorting is possible should be provided.”

The guidance further states that for any resident with symptoms of covid-19, or a positive test, the resident should self-isolate, not visit shared spaces such as bathrooms and kitchens and limit their interactions with other residents and staff. It is clear this is impossible in the barracks. Recent reports suggest that despite some asylum seekers being temporarily moved out of the barracks in response to the outbreak, more are testing positive and those testing negative are being forced to share sleeping accommodation with them. Those remaining are now threatened with arrest and a fixed penalty notice if they leave the site.

There have been several reports of incidents of self-harm and a number of suicide attempts. There are specific environmental features that make the barracks unfit for survivors of torture and trauma: prison-like environment, crowded accommodation, and lack of privacy particularly in bathrooms. 

Detention has long been known to be harmful for survivors of torture, in part due to environmental factors that act as reminders of past harms and so increase re-experiencing symptoms and increase feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. It is inevitable that for those who have suffered harm in a previous detention environment, further detention will be a potent source of triggers to their re-experiencing symptoms. Being in an environment like a military base with barbed wire fencing around it, is so close to being in detention as to be highly likely to have the same serious negative effects.  This is highly likely to trigger increased frequency of recall, nightmares, or flashbacks of prior detention experiences. This would in turn lead to heightened anxiety and fear, worsen their mental health condition, and increase the risk of self-harm and suicide.

The specific impact of feeling insecure and unsafe on torture survivors’ mental health is that it will be likely to increase their mental health symptoms, particularly if they have posttraumatic stress disorder. They have added: “It’s a military set-up here, it’s like being in prison. You can’t do anything without someone knowing, everything you do is watched.

“I don’t feel safe here, I’m really struggling mentally, the thoughts I’m having are very hard.

“Being here brings up bad memories, particularly at night. I am suffering from nightmares of my memories.

“I’m not getting any sleep, three or four hours maybe, each night. I am tired”

Further concerns relate to the failures in service provision both in terms of prior health screening and healthcare on site. There is therefore concern about not only the failure to identify mental health conditions but also the failure to identify other serious health conditions and communicable diseases. 

It is clear that the barracks are manifestly unsuitable accommodation for vulnerable asylum seekers at any time, and utterly unfit for purpose during a pandemic. The use of this type of accommodation was not inevitable and was not entirely driven by covid-19. Despite numbers of asylum applications dropping markedly in 2020, there has been a consistent increase in delays in asylum decision making, resulting in a growing backlog of cases awaiting a decision and people on asylum support 

If the government is serious about getting in control of this virus, it needs to act without delay. Empty the barracks, close the camps, save lives.

Juliet Cohen is Head of Doctors at Freedom from Torture. 

Angela Burnett is lead doctor at the London centre of Freedom from Torture

Freedom from Torture’s petition to close the camps is here: https://action.freedomfromtorture.org/close-the-barracks