Asylum seekers are being housed in “filthy” and “decrepit” makeshift accommodation during the coronavirus pandemic, inspectors have said.
Conditions at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent and Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire, Wales were described as “run-down” and “impoverished” and “unsuitable for long-term accommodation”.
The findings by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) were published on Monday.
They concluded there were “fundamental failures” over leadership and planning by the Home Office, who “did not exercise adequate oversight” at either of the sites.
In response, the Home Office said it had instructed service providers to make improvements.
At Napier Barracks, every person who responded to their resident survey told inspectors they had felt depressed, with about a third saying they had felt suicidal.
“We had serious safeguarding concerns in relation to Napier,” the report said. “People at high risk of self-harm were located in a decrepit ‘isolation block’ which we considered unfit for habitation.”
The Home Office has previously been criticised for using military barracks as “contingency asylum accommodation”.
In January, alarms were raised amid reports of a coronavirus outbreak at Napier Barracks. Home Secretary Priti Patel and immigration minister Chris Philp have both previously defended the use of such sites.
Conditions at Napier have been described as “nightmarish” and “unbearable”, with people living at the barracks saying social distancing is impossible.
There have also been reports of suicide attempts and earlier this year many residents went on hunger strike in protest at the conditions, which reportedly include 34 people sharing one shower.
The findings on Monday said given the “cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting”, “once one person was infected a large-scale outbreak was virtually inevitable”.
Even at Penally Camp, which has housed about 80 people since December 2020, ” the vast majority still did not feel they were being kept safe from the risk of infection”.
Inspectors acknowledged using the two sites as contingency asylum accommodation during a pandemic presented “substantial logistical and other challenges”, yet despite this contractors were given less than two weeks to make each site operational.
Local stakeholders who needed to set up essential services for the people at these sites, such as healthcare, were not consulted and given insufficient time to prepare, according to the findings.
“There seems to have been little understanding or regard on the Home Office’s part of what impact this would have at the local level,” they concluded.
“At both sites, residents described feeling trapped in poor conditions and feared that if they moved out they would jeopardise their only source of support and possibly their asylum cases.
“Residents at both camps, especially Napier, told us they had been shouted at and intimidated by protestors and members of the public who did not want them there and that this was another reason they did not want to leave the camp.”
Reacting to the findings, Naomi Phillips, director of policy and advocacy at British Red Cross, said: “These sites are completely inappropriate and inhumane as housing for people fleeing war, persecution and violence.
“The people we’ve spoken to in Penally have told us that they didn’t receive health screenings, were given little or no information about what was happening to them, and simply do not feel safe in the barracks.
“Our worst fears about the impact on people’s mental health have been realised.”
Labour MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Yvette Cooper, described the report as “shocking”.
“Putting more than 20 people in crowded dormitories as Covid was spreading was highly irresponsible,” she said.
“The Home Office told the Home Affairs Committee that they were following public health advice at every stage of the process yet the ICIBI says that both sites were opened before public health recommendations had been actioned.
“How could the Home Office have allowed this to happen?”
A petition to shut down the two sites has amassed more than 40,000 signatures.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “During these unprecedented times we have met our statutory duty to provide asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute, with suitable accommodation and three meals a day all paid for by the British taxpayer.
“We expect the highest possible standards from our service providers and have instructed them to make improvements at the site.”