CW // self-harm.
The Napier Barracks, the accommodation in Kent that has housed 500 men seeking asylum at one time, is plagued by evidence of dire conditions. Edward*, a man seeking asylum, was accommodated in the Napier Barracks. He recounts his experience.
‘They took me without informing me where they were transferring me.’
Edward was not told that he was going to be moved to the Napier Barracks. ‘Without notifying me one day in the morning a taxi came to bring me, they did not give me enough time to pack everything, it was very fast…I was able to pack some of my things, but not all because they were pressuring me and didn’t give me enough time. The other thing is that they do not inform you where they are transferring you, you always go with that uncertainty that you do not know where they are taking you… They took me without informing me where they were transferring me. I was in a taxi with two other people, we asked the one in the taxi and he told us that we were going to Folkestone, but without giving further details they did not tell us that it would be barracks, only the name of the town…The taxi driver told us we were going to a nice hostel, which was obviously not the case, but we didn’t really know until we got there.’
‘And I know of people who are still being moved to new places and told to leave immediately.’
I asked if the barracks were clean. He laughed and said ‘not at all… For the bathrooms, the showers, taking out the garbage, cleaning the hallways and changing the bedding, they did all of that once a week’ for around 500 men.
‘There was no disinfectant to clean the cubicle.’
Edward referred to his bedroom as a ‘cubicle.’ ‘The men were required to clean their cubicles. In my cubicle, I had to find a broom to clean where my bed was. They do not provide cleaning equipment, we had to look for a broom in other blocks or borrow from the staff to be able to clean our cubicle…There was no disinfectant to clean the cubicle.’
‘There is no privacy and in the showers there is exactly the same problem. The bathrooms were very very dirty. Although cleaning is once a week it’s not enough.’
‘We didn’t have a room, it was like a cubicle in a hospital. Since there was no door, I had to use a sheet as a curtain because there was nothing else… My cubicle was very small, the space was very small, I think a room in a hospital is bigger. I only had my bed, which by the way are very small beds in very bad condition…’ You can’t ‘sleep well.’ We had ‘a very old closet without a key and that was all.’
We could not shower privately. ‘It is a room with four showers, two showers on the left and two showers on the right. So you turn to the wall, but there are four people showering in the same room.’ I would ‘always look for a time that was only to be able to shower quietly otherwise I could not find privacy to shower.’
The accommodation was not warm, ‘absolutely for no one.’
I asked Edward if he felt safe with the Covid-19 measures. He responded, ‘not at all, although it did improve a bit after I arrived… There was no distancing, the mask was not used, we were only required to use it when we were going to order food… Distancing did not exist, there were some measures’ after some time ‘but it was very minimal.’ There were no Covid-19 signs in Edward’s language.
‘I went out to the city a couple of times to be able to distract myself from the confinement, although we always had to report to the guards, they wrote down our name, room number, telephone number and departure time. The closure became stricter when the government put the strictest restrictions…we were only allowed to go out for an hour and there were days that we were not allowed to go out…It was good to walk and at least have a distraction as the confinement makes anyone sick.’
‘It was really a very difficult challenge that I lived in that place.’
‘It is really very difficult psychologically to be there, after being in a hotel and being taken to a shelter of this nature where most of the time is spent in a very small room, where most of the people their only distraction is the telephone and from time to time, go for a walk. For me it became very difficult to be in that environment. Most of the days I got sick to my stomach and every day I was quite depressed. It was really a very difficult challenge that I lived in that place.’
‘There was only one doctor assigned to the entire shelter’ which ‘had around 500 people’ We had to make an appointment for a consultation, since he did not arrive every day of the week and his working hours were from 9 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon and on weekends it was very difficult to consult if one got sick.’
‘There was nothing available in my language.’
‘The doctor only spoke English…we had to find someone to help us with the translation with the language… There were no official personnel who spoke the same language as me… I remember that the written information was only available in English and Arabic. There was nothing available in my language.’
There was no mental health support. ‘That was one of the reasons I went for a walk because it was really starting to affect me too much.’
‘The food they gave us was so bad that I had a stomach ache for two weeks.’
‘Most of the people did not like the food they gave us…At lunch it was food that they had already prepared, they only heated it up in the microwave and most of the time it was always very spicy food. Dinner was more or less the same, sometimes it was literally the same food they had left over from lunch.’
Some of the men protested against the food. ‘This happened I remember one Saturday, a large number of people completely refused to eat lunch until they got the head of the barracks to come talk to them. Then they argued with him and for the following Monday he changed the food service.’ Edward could not tell what was said ‘because everything was in English but the head of the hostel was arguing with them for a good moment…The change was that they brought staff to cook in the place so we began to eat different food every day although it was not a big change but it definitely improved.’
There is a Migrant Helpline, a ‘line that is supposed to be enabled 24 hours a day to get in touch with any problem that may arise. Although the helpline is free, it is quite complicated for them to attend whenever you call, one spends about an hour waiting’ for someone to answer.
‘People were generally very friendly. Most of the police were very friendly, as were the kitchen staff and logistics staff. Most of the logistics personnel are personnel who already have their asylum permit and work there and others do volunteer work… The security personnel were there to observe and make sure that everything was controlled nothing else. That day they did not let anyone out due to the demonstrations that reached the entrance of the shelter.’
‘They didn’t give us any information’ about what was going on day to day.
‘It is said that the Ministry of the Interior assigns you a lawyer when you cannot afford a lawyer, which is probably what you would have already done. But the problem is that the processes are more time consuming when it is with a lawyer assigned by the ministry according to what they have told me so it is not very useful immediately.’
‘My lawyer who leads my asylum process together with a charitable organization intervened so that I could leave the shelter because my mental health… was getting worse psychologically… every day that passed… it was very bad.’ I asked if without the organisation, Edward would have been moved because of the deterioration of his mental health. He responded ‘I don’t think it would have happened, because there are people I met when I got to the shelter and they are still there because they don’t have any other help.’
Edward thought he would be treated better by the Home Office. ‘I thought my asylum process would be quicker… The Ministry of the Interior often excuses itself that due to the pandemic all asylum processes are delayed that I have to wait longer. They use the pandemic as an excuse.’
While Edward was in the barracks, he received no updates about his asylum application from the Home Office.
So far, Edward has been waiting for his asylum application to be approved for more than 6 months.
‘They are inhumane places where all kinds of privacy are lost.’
I asked Edward what he would like people to know about the barracks. ‘Most importantly, such shelters are not suitable accommodation for asylum seekers. They completely strip you of your privacy. The bedrooms have no doors; anyone can enter at any time… The government should NOT use these types of places to house asylum seekers since they are inhumane places where all kinds of privacy are lost, and if they do not have more options then they should improve them that have the best conditions, they should at least make sure that these places have all the necessary and adequate tools for people.’
‘I have never been in a prison but, I felt as if I was in prison as if one is a criminal and not an asylum seeker.’
Edward thought the government would treat him ‘much better… The treatment in those shelters is really inhumane.’ I saw ‘various inhumane things, one day there was a person who cut the veins in his hand, all because psychologically confinement in such a place caused him depression.’
Edward’s experience of the barrack accommodation has changed his perception of the UK government.
*Edward is not the man’s real name. His identity is protected because public criticism of the Home Office could negatively affect his asylum application.
Image: dormitory block for 28 men. With permission from Anonymous.