Interim report of inquiry into use of large-scale, institutional sites to house asylum seekers
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention on Monday published an important interim report on its inquiry into the Home Office's use of large-scale, institutional sites to house destitute asylum seekers.
The 8-page report is here.
The APPG is currently holding an inquiry on the use of sites such as Napier Barracks in Kent and Penally Camp in Wales for asylum accommodation, as it says these large-scale, institutional sites share many of the of same features found in immigration detention settings.
This week's interim report presents a summary of three oral evidence sessions held with key witnesses in July.
A number of serious concerns were raised by witnesses, with the report noting these included "unsanitary, crowded, 'prison-like' conditions at the sites; chronic levels of sleep deprivation; ineffective safeguarding; inadequate access to legal advice and healthcare; problematic changes in the processing of residents' asylum claims; and intimidation and mistreatment of both residents and NGO workers supporting them."
The report notes that the cramped conditions and lack of privacy at the sites meant residents had to hold sensitive discussions with their lawyers within earshot of other residents and staff, which had implications for disclosure, confidentiality and the person's mental health.
Sleep deprivation caused by conditions at the sites added further problems. One resident told the APPG inquiry: "I'm mentally and physically drained all the time, and this doesn't put me into the right mindset for engaging with my asylum claim."
Mechanisms for identifying and safeguarding vulnerable people before and during their placement at the sites were inadequate, the APPG found.
The report states: "In the absence of effective safeguarding measures, the Home Office appeared to be relying on lawyers and legal interventions to identify vulnerable people. Many vulnerable people had been, and continued to be, moved out of the sites as a result of such interventions, having experienced additional suffering during their stay. It was not acceptable to rely on such interventions as a substitute for proper safeguarding measures, not least given the barriers to effective legal support faced by residents."
On the subject of access to legal advice, the report added: "Residents needed legal advice on asylum and public law matters, but faced many barriers in terms of accessing it – and little was being done to address this. On-site staff did some signposting but relied heavily on NGOs to ensure residents were connected with lawyers. The quality, capacity and level of expertise amongst some law firms working with residents were also of concern. There was a lack of private space to hold confidential legal discussions, and insufficient internet and mobile phone access, making communication difficult. No face-to-face visits by lawyers had taken place at Napier since it opened."
Many residents reported a rapid deterioration in their mental health after arriving at the sites, which was likened to that seen in immigration detention centres. One former resident said: "It would be difficult to design a system that more perfectly delivers despair and deteriorating human health and mental capacity than these asylum camps."
The APPG on Immigration Detention noted that many witnesses believed the use of sites such as Napier and Penally was a test-run for the Government's proposed 'asylum reception centres' and other changes that are detailed in the New Plan for Immigration and the Nationality and Borders Bill.
Given the seriousness of the concerns found at the sites, the APPG expressed deep reservations about the introduction of these changes, and more generally about the Government's overall direction of travel in terms of asylum policy.
Alison Thewliss MP, the chair of the APPG, was quoted by the Evening Standard as saying: "This interim report confirms many of our worst fears about the UK Government's use of former military barracks as asylum accommodation, and reaffirms that these types of settings are profoundly inappropriate for housing individuals, many of whom are vulnerable."
The Home Office disagreed with the APPG's findings.
A Home Office spokesperson told BBC News: "We disagree with the key findings of this report. During the height of an unprecedented health pandemic, to ensure asylum seekers were not left destitute, additional accommodation was required at extremely short notice. We have made significant improvements to the site and continue to work to ensure that residents are safe, secure and their essential needs are met."