Six asylum seekers formerly housed at Napier Barracks have won a legal challenge against the Government after a High Court judge ruled their accommodation was inadequate.
The former Army barracks in Kent has been used to house hundreds of asylum seekers since last September, despite the Home Office being warned by Public Health England (PHE) that it was unsuitable.
The men, all said to be survivors of torture or human trafficking, argued that the Home Office unlawfully accommodated people at the “squalid” barracks and conditions there posed “real and immediate risks to life and of ill-treatment.”
On Thursday, Justice Linden found that the Home Office had acted unlawfully when deciding the former military camp was adequate to house the men.
He said: “Whether on the basis of the issues of COVID or fire safety taken in isolation, or looking at the cumulative effect of the decision-making about, and the conditions in, the barracks, I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants.”
The Home Office has said that “significant improvement works” have taken place at Napier since the six men were housed there between September 2020 and February 2021.
A Home Office spokesperson continued: “It is disappointing that this judgment was reached on the basis of the site prior to the significant improvement works which have taken place in difficult circumstances. Napier will continue to operate and provide safe and secure accommodation.
“We will carefully consider the ruling and our next steps.”
Justice Linden’s judgment does not force the barracks to close, however campaigners have reiterated calls for the site to be shut down.
In the ruling, the judge said the overcrowding and risk of COVID-19 infection meant that it was “virtually inevitable that large numbers of residents would contract COVID-19.”
Almost 200 people tested positive for coronavirus during an outbreak at the barracks earlier this year, senior Home Office officials told MPs in February.
Justice Linden found the Home Office failed to apply “fundamental aspects” of PHE advice, including not to use dormitory-style accommodation or keep numbers down to six per dormitory, which resulted in the Government’s failure to ensure an adequate standard of living.
He also said it was unlawful “to depart from the advice of the government body charged with providing advice to the public on COVID safety in such a fundamental way without good reason, and to send the claimants to the barracks when the measures which the defendant herself regarded as appropriate—e.g. transferring asylum seekers from quarantine and in bubbles–were not in place.”
The judge also said that while the Home Office did not establish a similar approach was taken with Ministry of Defence staff, that would also be unacceptable.
Justice Linden added the barracks were a “detention-like” setting for the men who were meant to be living at the camp voluntarily, and that the conditions were likely to impact the mental health of those living there.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds called the judgment a “shameful verdict” for the Government and Home Secretary Priti Patel.
He continued: “Ministers have been warned—repeatedly—about the dangerous and unacceptable conditions at Napier.
“It was reckless and callous to house people in accommodation that created ideal conditions for outbreaks of COVID. This lack of compassion and competence put at risk the people staying on the site, staff, and the local community.
“Ministers should make a statement—urgently—to explain how this injustice occurred, who will be held to account, and how they will ensure it can never happen again.”
Justice Linden declined to rule that the barracks could never be used to house asylum seekers and said his findings were based on the conditions the six men faced.
He added: “Even if it were appropriate to adopt a more wide-ranging approach, which I do not accept, the circumstances of the particular asylum seeker are relevant, as I have pointed out, and much depends on the conditions at the time when they are or were there, and for how long they were there.”
The judge later said: “If the barracks are to continue to be used, there clearly need to be substantial improvements in the conditions there, and lower numbers of asylum seekers living there for significantly shorter periods, with measures to reduce the risk of COVID infection which are consistent with PHE advice.
“But there also needs to be a better system for identifying those for whom such accommodation is not suitable and for detecting cases where, although suitable when initially transferred, it ceases to be during the course of their stay.”
The Home Office and the six men will now need to agree on damages and what declarations are required.