militarism British army soldier in tank

Close the Barracks, Confront British Militarism

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Reports have resurfaced from 2014 concluding Napier barracks ‘did not meet acceptable standards of accommodation’ even then and marked for demolition. Calls to close the barracks housing people seeking asylum on grounds of human rights and public health concerns have been met with responses glorifying the armed forces and weaponising patriotism. This ignores the reality of the harms of militarism that victimises soldiers, as much as those who are displaced by conflict.

Ultimate patriot, Home Secretary Priti Patel, has stated the accommodation was ‘good enough for our brave army personnel’. However, if they were so suitable, why have they not been used for over ten years? On the contrary, reports submitted by housebuilding company Taylor Wimpey go on to say that much of the buildings on the site ‘were never intended for long-term use’, and earmarked them for demolition.

Taylor Wimpey submitted the report to the district council as part of a planning application to build housing and community buildings on the site of the barracks.

This comes as the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) is due to visit Napier, and Penally barracks in South Wales to inspect and evaluate the use of the sites to house people seeking asylum this week.

The Ministry of Defence sites were handed over to the Home Office last summer for this purpose for up to 12 months. Last week immigration minister Chris Philp stated in the House of Commons that their use was in response to an ‘emergency situation’ and ‘extreme pressure on our asylum system.’

In fact, the numbers of people seeking asylum in the UK fell overall last year by 40%, in the main due to the additional barriers placed by Covid-19. Delays in the asylum system have been a long-term feature, rather than being down to the pressures of coronavirus.

Hundreds of asylum seekers, who were locked down in Napier for 25 days following a coronavirus outbreak have been moved, under a week since the inspection was announced. The Home Office has stated this was to allow people to self-isolate more easily. When government policy pushed the use of the barracks due to emergency and necessity, this is disingenuous.

Napier Barracks asylum seekers accommodation
Napier barracks, where up to 400 asylum seekers have been held since September [Image:

But the military-industrial complex does not protect its ‘brave soldiers’ either and instead weaponises them whenever necessary. A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) just two weeks ago showed thousands of service personnel were living in substandard accommodation after suffering from ‘decades of under-investment’ by the Ministry of Defence.

The report found over 20,000 people were living in accommodation blocks either full or part-time of a ‘poorer grade’ and 2,400 were not charged any rent due to the low quality of the housing.

Common issues listed were lack of cooking facilities and even problems with heating or hot water. In 2018, it was estimated that the Ministry of Defence struggled to find the money to maintain its estate and faced an £8.5 billion funding gap over the next 30 years.

Government spending priorities show however that the pursuit of militarism is far from over. At the end of November 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a defence budget boost of billions over four years as a ‘once-in-a-generation modernisation’ of the armed forces to ‘extend British influence and protect the public.’

Despite these big spending plans, Britain is failing in its legal obligations to its soldiers and veterans, just the same as those who are forced to migrate. Pledges under the Armed Forces Covenant, part of the Armed Forces Act commit nations to remove disadvantages for active and ex-service personnel to access public services.

For all its glorification, soldiers returning from war still struggle with a higher unemployment rate than the general population. Most alarmingly, veterans returning to England had to wait over a month for a mental health support appointment, well above the 14-day target. It took 70 days on average for treatment to actually begin.

Army personnel interviewed for a BBC report on the issue had their names changed to protect them, showing the consequences they may face for their honesty. One solder stated how low morale had been at one base, saying ‘We feel just a lack of worth really. We don’t feel we are really valued or cared about.’

Rather, militarism promotes the belief in armed conflict for resolving disputes and emphasizes military power in government to represent a nation’s success. For hundreds of years, it has furthered state interests and policy-making direction at home and abroad. It connects intrinsically with forces of nationalism and imperialism, as British armed forces advanced the Empire across colonies in India, Asia and Africa.

Despite the UK government being an active participant in the global arms trade fueling warfare across the world, the British public do not feel the sense of being actively ‘at war’ to define their patriotism against an outside threat. Still, in the modern-day, ‘militaristic’ attitudes have extended ever further into everyday life and government policy, at the expense of the lives of soldiers or those forced to migrate, people often running from conflict and instability.

These attitudes intersect with migration generally, and asylum seekers specifically, in a highly insidious way. It must be believed that the world is a fundamentally dangerous place and a military approach is the best solution to complex problems. By extension, increased militarisation of the UK’s immigration systems has not saved lives or make the system fairer. Using army drones and RAF fighter planes in the English Channel, to appointing an ex-marine ‘Clandestine Threat Commander’ in response to people in tiny rubber boats only further proves the point.

Approximately €31 million has been committed by the Home Office to send to increase numbers of French border force around Calais and fund new technology such as radar and cameras to spot asylum seekers attempting the journey. Without addressing the reasons for migration, thousands will continue to put their lives at risk.

Soldiers returning to England waited on average 70 days for any mental health treatment to begin [Image: Benjamin Faust, Unsplash]

Similarly, Britain’s obligations to asylum seekers are laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Conditions at Napier and Penally barracks are being challenged for breaking human rights law. Inside the barracks have little to no facilities and access to health care or legal advice onsite.

A video shared with us by a person at Napier barracks films inside, showing the bleak and unsafe accommodation, making social distancing impossible

Both the men and women of the British armed forces and people making perilous journeys across countries and seas to claim asylum are collateral damage to Britain’s self-interested approach to foreign policy and renegotiation of power on the global stage.

Britain’s military interventions across the Middle East more recently, and of course the historic impacts of colonial warfare across Africa for example, are some of the main drivers of forced migration seen today across the world. They have cost billions and thousands of lives, both in combat and in its aftermath as civilians escape and in turn become displaced. And for the soldiers who make it home, their struggles can often go unsupported.

Sweeping generalisations create the false binary of the ‘illegal migrant’, criminal and dangerous and the ‘hero’ soldier and military, keeping ‘us’ safe from ‘them’. A simple plotline threatening danger justifies policies that do not promote safety, but actually commit harms.

Transition to an anti-war position and movement away from jingoistic military excesses would help to lessen the displacement of people across the world. A move to finally close down the barracks for good would be a small step forward, as the independent investigations begin this week.

[Header image: Roberto Catarinicchia, Unsplash]