Hundreds of asylum seekers are still being forced to live in a squalid and run-down ex-army facility outside the Kent town of Folkestone, despite numerous reports of inhumane conditions at the Napier barracks site.
The Home Office has been placing people in the ‘filthy’ and ‘unsuitable’ 28-bed dorms – which were deemed inadequate for soldiers – since September. It has resisted pressure from residents and anti-racist groups to shut down the site, even after a Covid-19 outbreak saw nearly 200 people infected at the start of the year.
Hemmed in by barbed wire fences and a near-constant far-right presence, asylum seekers describe feeling trapped and dehumanised at the site, where many are left in limbo for months on end.
Activists and residents are now demanding the site be shut down, with a solidarity event planned for Saturday 22 May.
Novara Media reporter Sophie K Rosa spoke to a former resident about his experience of the camp, the far-right threat, and how he thinks residents and activists can work together to resist border violence and the systemic racism of the Home Office.
I was moved to Napier barracks in mid-October last year and stayed there for four months. When I arrived, I was really shocked: seeing the environment, the fences all around me, I felt like I had committed a crime.
The accommodation was overcrowded, unhygienic and unsuitable. The food was inadequate: low quality and sometimes undercooked. Illness spread easily; there was a Covid-19 outbreak while I was there, and even before this outbreaks of illnesses – such as scabies – were common in the often filthy camp. So many people were living in the same room.
In mid-January, some of us became fatigued and started repeatedly coughing. There were only a few isolation rooms. By the end of January, you could hear coughs from every corner of the camp.
We felt that we were less than human; the people who ran the camp didn’t even ask if we were alright, or care if we needed medical attention. We didn’t have access to health care, there was one nurse for 400 people. People were consuming painkillers like chocolates. I could see the distress and frustration in everyone’s eyes.
Residents felt in limbo. We didn’t receive updates or news about our applications. Our freedom was restricted. We felt isolated, dehumanised and criminalised. Over time, people became depressed, distressed. Most just slept, unable to even talk to each other.
In general, I’m an introverted, patient person, but the terrible conditions in Napier pushed me to take action. In the news, I saw that the government – especially MPs Chris Philip and Priti Patel – were blaming residents for the coronavirus outbreak. This made me really angry and was the beginning of my activism. I felt I had to do something because the residents didn’t have a voice and they were spreading misinformation about us. It wasn’t fair.
The first thing I did was write a letter on behalf of the Napier residents to the people of the UK and share it on social media. In it, I described the conditions we were living in and collected 200 signatures from other residents. I spoke to the press about the truth of the situation inside the camp and started sharing videos and photos of the inside. When I was moved out, I continued helping the residents inside, connecting them with lawyers and solicitors. I am still fighting for the closure of the camp.
The presence of the far-right outside of the camp made us feel really unsafe. When we wanted to go out, the only thing that we could really enjoy in Folkestone was going to the beach and walking in nature. But the far-right would constantly harass us by taking pictures or recording videos, asking us where we came from, and saying they didn’t want us here. Even when we were inside, sometimes they would swear at us from the gates.
We felt that we couldn’t defend ourselves because some of us are undocumented immigrants who are considered ‘illegal’. We felt powerless and wordless in the face of their harassment.
But rather than seeing these far-right activists as a threat, the police treated us like the threat. When we began planning a protest outside the camp, a bunch of officers came to speak to us. They threatened us, telling us that if we held a protest, they had 50 police officers in town who could easily arrest us – and that if that happened, it could be harmful to our asylum applications. The point of our protest was to show the local community that we were suffering inside Napier. But the police threat worked; we held the protest inside the camp instead.
After I shared the letter about our conditions we started receiving support from people and activists outside of the camp.
Solidarity grew between residents too. We were of different nationalities, from different cultures and spoke different languages, but when problems and issues arose, when we faced mental health challenges because of our living conditions, we became even more united. Everyone was keen to take part in any activity that raised their voice, because they all felt that otherwise they were voiceless. This brought us closer together.
This Saturday’s ‘festival of solidarity’ at Napier Barracks has two aims: to show the current residents they have people supporting them on the outside, and to demand that the Home Office closes the camp, because it is not suitable or safe for vulnerable people.
Offering friendship and solidarity to asylum seekers is about who we choose to be as human beings and how we would want to be treated if we were in the same situation. If those who support asylum seekers remain silent, the far-right will do whatever they can to dehumanise and criminalise us even more. We need to raise our voices and say that what we are seeing in Napier is immoral and shameful. If we don’t want people being treated like this by the Home Office, we have to take action.
Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.
More information on the event this weekend can be found here.