Migration: UK criticised for ‘inhumane’ housing conditions for asylum seekers

Jennifer Venis, IBA Multimedia JournalistTuesday 23 March 2021

Key findings from inspections of two sites used by the UK Home Office as contingency asylum accommodation – published in early March – have raised further concerns about the country’s treatment of asylum seekers.

Officials from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration and the Inspectorate of Prisons visited two former military barracks, Napier Barracks in Kent and Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire, in mid-February, with a follow-up visit to the Kent site in March.

Their key findings asserted ‘fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office’, which did ‘not exercise adequate oversight at either site’.

A lot of people who are on the face of it refugees have had to be in inadequate and inhumane temporary accommodation

Toufique Hossain
Director of Public Law, Duncan Lewis Solicitors

The findings flagged ‘serious safeguarding concerns’ in respect of Napier Barracks, with asylum seekers at high risk of self-harm housed in a ‘decrepit’ isolation block the inspectors considered ‘unfit for habitation’.

The inspectors highlighted that most residents at the two sites had been housed there for several months, with uncertainty regarding how much longer they would be there being a source of distress for residents. Home Office communication with residents about their claims was deemed ‘poor’.

Toufique Hossain, Director of Public Law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors in London, is concerned that ‘a lot of people who are on the face of it refugees have had to be in inadequate and inhumane temporary accommodation, not able to work, not able to access welfare benefits.’

And in regard to these accommodation sites, he says, ‘there’s been a real failure to help this cohort of individuals in remaining safe and keeping them away from Covid-19.’

Hossain says the situation has been exacerbated by long delays for claimants, which severely affect the mental health of already vulnerable people. He says ‘the substantive interview stage of the claim process has ground to a halt for the vast majority of asylum seekers because the Home Office has not had an adequate and fair Covid-19 contingency plan to prioritise refugee cases that they believe on a prima facie [basis] are likely to be successful and need not go through that phase’.

A Home Office spokesperson tells Global Insight that ‘the Government is committed to ensuring asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay but some cases can be more complex and take longer to process.’

The Penally Camp was closed later in March, but the Home Office plans to continue using the Napier Barracks in Kent and will be increasing the number of asylum seekers housed there ‘in accordance with current needs’.

The Home Office spokesperson says that ‘Penally has provided safe and secure accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute. The site has been good value for money and we are grateful to MoD [the Ministry of Defence] for temporary use of this site.’

‘This provided emergency capacity in response to pressures put on the asylum estate during COVID,’ the spokesperson explains. ‘As those pressures have eased we have decided not to extend emergency planning permission beyond six months. Napier will remain in operation in accordance with current needs.’

The Home Office spokesperson explains that ‘The Home Secretary will soon bring forward her plan to fix our broken asylum system and that plan will address the Government’s asylum estate.’

The Home Office has proposed several changes to immigration policies as part of its post-Brexit Sovereign Borders Bill, due in spring. Leaked information regarding the Bill includes plans to process claimants offshore, as Australia does.

Liz Barratt, Joint Head of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Team at Bindmans in London, says, ‘this government looks to Australia on the immigration front and it’s a very brutal, very insular system. If that’s what we’re looking to then shame on us.’

She highlights that the government has ended family reunification schemes for unaccompanied children in Europe who have family in the United Kingdom, and are generally setting up more barriers to people claiming asylum. ‘We are signatories to the Refugee Convention and that really is not in the spirit of the Convention’, adds Barratt.

The Home Office spokesperson highlighted that unaccompanied asylum seeking children are an ‘absolute priority’.

Following Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, which had allowed the UK to return asylum seekers to the first safe EU country they had reached. The Home Office has replaced the regulation with a system that enables it to effectively treat certain asylum claims as inadmissible if the government rules that a ‘safe third country’ should be responsible for a person’s asylum claim.

What’s particularly concerning, Hossain says, is that the government’s definition of a safe country centres on it simply having a bilateral agreement with the country.

Barratt suggests that in the UK and elsewhere, ‘largely, every time there’s a rule change, it’s a narrowing of asylum access and a closing down of borders. The people thinking about immigration are thinking about control.’

In the EU, the European Commission proposed its new Pact on Migration and Asylum in November 2020, which placed an emphasis on EU solidarity and a humanitarian approach.

Barbara Wegelin is Website and Communications Officer on the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee and a partner at Van der Woude de Graaf in Amsterdam. She tells Global Insight that the Pact ‘does not contain any serious measures based on solidarity. The proposals are based on voluntary involvement and that’s dead in the water.’

‘What we’re seeing now,’ five years after the EU-Turkey deal in the wake of the European migration crisis, ‘is still a response to the historic lack of coordination and solidarity among Member States,’ she says. ‘Some Member States that took on a lot of refugees in 2015 and didn’t get the solidary from other Member States have become much more hard-line now.’

In Denmark in early March, the government revoked the residency permits of 94 Syrian refugees, declaring that Damascus and the surrounding areas are safe to return to.

Denmark’s Minister for Immigration and Integration, Mattias Tesfaye, has said that the country had been clear with the refugees that the residency permits were temporary and ‘can be withdrawn if protection is no longer needed.’

The refugees are appealing the decision and Wegelin believes they will win, ‘because Damascus is patently not safe to send back refugees to.’ She suspects that if these refugees are sent to Syria, they will be tortured and killed. The move ‘would absolutely be a breach of the principle of non-refoulement’, she says.

‘There has to be a sustainable development before you can declare the region safe, and that’s not the case in Syria. It’s extremely volatile’, she adds.

Wegelin says that developments in Denmark will be closely watched by other countries, but ‘if this gets thrown out in Denmark it won’t have any chance of flying anywhere else in the EU that has the same asylum directives.’

She believes that if the European Commission is serious about solidarity it should revoke the Dublin Regulation and create a ‘distribution key’ for the relocation of asylum seekers that is not based on voluntary involvement.

‘We have to get people out of Greece and Italy and distribute them fairly, whether Poland and Hungary are going to join in or not’, she says. ‘Right now, everyone is happy to hide behind Poland and Hungary and say there’s never going to be unanimity so things can’t change, but there’s no reason why ten Member States couldn’t do something together.’

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