The Napier Barracks: the fire

The Napier Barracks, the accommodation in Kent that currently houses 400 asylum seekers, is plagued by evidence of dire conditions. 

The government has actively targeted and mistreated asylum seekers for too long. As noted by this mini-series, evidence mounts every single day that the Napier Barracks is a violation of human rights.

In less than a week, the authorities have attempted to shut down publicity that presents the abject conditions of the accommodation. A day later, one of the buildings on the site was set on fire – an expression of a few asylum seekers’ final plea to be noticed by a government that has continued to dismiss them.

28th January 2021: Journalist arrested

The government is attempting to push the appalling condition out of the public eye. Journalist Andy Aitchison was arrested and his sim card seized after photographing the demonstrations protesting the conditions of the site. The journalist commented, ‘it feels like they are trying to shut the press. Obviously things are not going right in there (the barracks).’

The alarming publicity shutdown accords with the fact that volunteers were made to sign ‘confidentiality agreements’ forbidding them from talking about what they see inside the camps.

The Napier Barracks are like ghettos, pushing ‘undesirable’ people into the corners. The arrest is another mark of this exclusion as the government’s treatment of asylum seekers is pushed into the shadows.

29th January 2021: Fire in the Napier Barracks

One of the buildings in the accommodation was set on fire and it is believed that this was deliberate.

The fire in the Napier Barracks should be the final push for the government to move asylum seekers out. Yet it has been used as another opportunity to criminalise and segregate.

As when any behaviour is judged, it is important to consider the context of the fire. In a site with several hundred men, and 28 men sharing a single room, it was only a matter of time before there was a Covid outbreak. Predictably, Covid spread throughout the barracks in January – at least 120 men tested positive. Some of the men had insisted on sleeping outside in a desperate attempt to escape the virus. Some of the men had been moved out. But shortly before the fire, the remaining men had just been told that there were still men in the barracks with Covid-19 and that they would not be allowed to leave.

In the wake of the fire, Priti Patel released a statement that the fire is ‘deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country.’ Her statement is designed to generate anger as she uses the typical right-wing rhetoric that ‘foreigners are stealing our money.’ Asylum seekers would be able to earn their own money if they were allowed to work: in an attempt to deter people from arriving in the UK, asylum seekers are forbidden from working and forced to rely on a meagre £37.75 a week if they have no savings. This is slightly more than 50% of jobseekers’ allowance. If the government allowed asylum seekers to work, the ‘taxpayers of this country’ would not need to pay for the basic living costs of asylum seekers.

Chris Philp also tweeted, ‘We will be seeking evidence to support prosecutions. This accommodation was good enough for the armed forces and there is simply no excuse for this at all.’ His tweet is unbelievably inaccurate – he blatantly ignores the many complaints about the conditions of the Barracks. The accommodation more closely resembles a detention centre which, in the words of Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, is likely to ‘re-traumatise survivors’ of torture, slavery, genocide, and rape. Although setting fire to a building cannot be condoned, Philp also disregards the context of the fire. The fire is an indication of the men’s plea to be noticed and for their basic humanity to be acknowledged by the Home Office.

As of 2nd February, 14 men had been arrested in connection with the fire.

Following his first tweet, Philp then posted, ‘I welcome the fact that arrests have been made in relation to the disgraceful arson, intimidation and vandalism at Napier yesterday. This behaviour is totally unacceptable and will simply not be tolerated. My thoughts are with the hard-working staff who had to face this.’ The tweet screams of desperation to criminalise the men – the fact that he ‘welcomes’ the arrests demonstrates a drive to publicly punish them and brand all asylum seekers as criminals.

After the fire, the asylum seekers also released an open letter, which highlighted that the incident only reflected the behaviour of a few. They explained that they were all (understandably) ‘desperate and disappointed’ and the fire was a response to distress for some men. The asylum seekers all pointed out that ‘their protests, hunger strikes, and suicide attempts were all ignored from the Home Office.’

The open letter is a mark of the asylum seekers’ humanity: it stands in welcome contrast to the Home Office’s persistent dehumanisation of them. These men are only human like the rest of us. Like most of the UK, they are also scared of the virus. Being constantly surrounded by transmission risks, and given no room to self-isolate, understandably leads to anger.

The Barracks, and the previous ways of housing asylum seekers, seem designed to prevent people from moving to the UK. These asylum seekers are not in detention, but the Home Office is intent on treating them like they are. Not only are they violating human rights, the government has missed the point of seeking refuge. Asylum seekers are already in the country – treating them so poorly does not prevent them from arriving. Asylum seekers have fled brutality and they should be treated with compassion. The government’s current treatment is simply pushing asylum seekers further into despair.

All asylum seekers must be rehoused in better quality accommodation.

The Napier Barracks must be closed.



Image: Oleg Afonin on Flickr

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