The Independent Chief Investigator of Borders and Immigration has released a ‘high-level overview’ of the findings of the independent inspection into the barracks, Napier, and Penally, housing people claiming asylum in the UK. Two visits were carried out first in February and then on 4 March.
The findings will form part of a much more detailed report due to be issued in the coming weeks.
‘The Home Office did not exercise adequate oversight at either site and Home Office staff were rarely present. There were fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office’, the report states.
Under the heading ‘leadership and management’, the ICIBI recount multiple Home Office failings, in the wake of health and safety warnings issued by Public Health England and Wales and Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate.
The report goes on: ‘Over 100 people were confined to their billets for four weeks & unable to go outside except to use the mobile toilets or showers. They were warned they might be arrested if they left the camp. In at least one case, a resident was forcibly returned to the camp by the police.
‘The environment at both sites was impoverished, run-down and unsuitable for long-term accommodation.
Cleanliness at both sites was variable at best and cleaning was made difficult by the age of the buildings. Some areas were filthy.’
As has been shown in recent reports, the Home Office willfully ignored advice from Public Health England when opening up the barracks as accommodation. Despite PHE guidance against opening a multiple occupancy dormitory-style environment for people claiming asylum, the Home Office went ahead with their plans regardless. Both the Napier and Penally sites were opened before any public health body recommendations could be actioned.
Their findings state: ‘Given the cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier, once one person was infected a large-scale outbreak was virtually inevitable.’
The ICIBI also carried out surveys, talking to residents of both barracks sites.
In the resident survey undertaken at Napier, none of those who responded felt they had been kept safe from COVID-19. At Penally, where overall numbers were lower and cohorts smaller, the vast majority still did not feel they were being kept safe from the risk of infection.
At both sites about a third of respondents said they had mental health problems; according to the ICIBI, about a third of respondents at Napier said they had felt suicidal.
The Home Office did not exercise adequate oversight at either site and Home Office staff were rarely present. There were fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office
Due to the lack of adequate information and communication from the Home Office, many of the people kept on the sites had said they felt ‘hopeless’ and ‘depressed’. Most of the residents have been there for several months, and did not know how much longer they would be kept there. A majority of the residents were awaiting a ‘substantive asylum interview’, where the person making an asylum claim can put forward their case to the Home Office.
Asylum interviews were only resumed via video at the end of last August, after being stopped since March due to the pandemic. However, people were not provided with dates for interviews and meetings were not providing information about the asylum claims of individuals.
The ICIBI stated that ‘The dearth of official information gave rise to misunderstandings and rumours, which had a negative effect on individuals and the collective mood.’
In this environment, people were moved out with very little notice or explanation. Some believed (mistakenly) that it was in some way connected to the Home Office’s view of the strength of their asylum claim, and the fact they had been in Penally or Napier would count against them.
About a third of respondents said they had mental health problems; according to the ICIBI, about a third of respondents at Napier said they had felt suicidal
It was revealed last week that though numbers at both sites are now much reduced from their peak, the Home Office plans to have more people claiming asylum shipped into the barracks from early April.
Inspectors are continuing to gather, analyse and test written and oral evidence from the Home Office, the contracted third parties, national and local stakeholders, and asylum seekers who are or have been in contingency accommodation.