Napier Barracks: worse than prison

Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network talks to Syria Notes
4 MARCH 2021
Kent Refugee Action Network, or KRAN for short, is a registered charity that for the past eighteen years has worked to help asylum seekers arriving in southeast England. The county of Kent includes Dover, the main UK port for cross-channel traffic from France. It’s also where the Channel Tunnel emerges. As a result, Kent has been the point of arrival for many of the people who have come to the UK seeking asylum.

We talked to Bridget Chapman about KRAN’s work, which has become much more difficult in recent months since the UK Government started using a former army camp to accommodate asylum seekers.

This interview was conducted by Clara Connolly.

Clara Connolly: Hello Bridget, it’s lovely to see you. Would you like to start off by saying something about Kent Refugee Action Network?

Bridget Chapman: We work mostly with people who have arrived in Kent as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We will work with anybody who comes under our remit that’s in Kent—but traditionally, what’s happened when people have arrived as asylum seekers is that adults or families with children have been distributed around the country, while the people that stayed in Kent are unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, because the local authority had a duty of care for them. Like all local authorities, Kent is very stretched. We are there as additional support to help young asylum seeking people in Kent live happy, healthy, and successful lives.

We’re the closest bit of the UK to the European continent. On a clear day, I can see France very clearly. This part of the UK has always been a place where people have entered the country, and a place where people have found refuge, from the Huguenots fleeing persecution and settling in Sandwich in Kent, to when in the First World War, we had refugees arriving from Belgium after Germany had invaded. Folkestone had fourteen thousand people arrive in one day in August of 1914.

The situation we’ve got at the moment is not unprecedented, and it’s certainly not a crisis for us, but it is a crisis for anybody in those boats.

What’s a typical day for you like? What position do you have in the organisation?

I’ve been a paid worker for KRAN for six years. Now I’m their media spokesperson, but I’m also a case worker, so I deal with individual issues, and I’m a qualified teacher, and I still step in when we need people on the education side of things.

When you say the education side of things, do you provide English lessons?

We are not statutory education, and we don’t want to be. We think it’s really important that young people are in local statutory education with the rest of the community as soon as possible. That’s better for them, and it’s better for us as a community. However, if a young person arrives into the country in May and college doesn’t start until September, that’s a big gap, so we want to bolster their English for when they start college.

We also focus a lot on life skills, because the average age of the person we worked with is sixteen or seventeen, and most of them are living independently. They’re not in foster care. A few of them will be put together into a flat or a house, and they have to look after themselves. The social workers, they’ve got huge caseloads. They have to have contact with those young people every six weeks and that can be a phone call. So, imagine any sixteen year old, if you leave them in the house without an adult present, there are always going to be some issues.

We do a lot of life skills. We do a lot of cooking classes, because in cooking, you’re using English, but you’re also using maths and you’re learning a skill to help you live independently and healthily. We do budgeting, we do conflict resolution, healthy relationships.

All kinds of things your Mum or Dad might have helped you with, but unfortunately your Mum or Dad aren’t right here.We can never replace their family, but we aim to give the kind of support that a family would give.

We come across new things all of the time. We had a young person who had a fire in his flat because he’d never used a microwave before, and he didn’t know if you left the metal spoon in, it would cause a problem. Well, how would you know if you’d not been told?

Another set of young people said that they hadn’t had electricity for two days, and it was winter and dark and cold. When we investigated, the fuse had flipped in the flat. Nobody had shown them the fuse box and said, this is what happens, you just have to push this down again. So, it’s just those kinds of things. It can be helping them to apply for a provisional driving licence, it can be celebrating birthdays and achievements. Whatever you think it will take to make them happy.

And how do they know about you and how do you know about them?

Social workers can refer to us. People can also self refer and friends will often tell them about us and say, KRAN might be able to help you with that problem. And younger people are very savvy with tech, and they’ll often find our social media accounts and message on Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter.

Links to Kent Refugee Action Network

Facebook: @kentrefugeeactionnetwork
Instagram: @kentrefugeeactionnetwork
Twitter: @_KRAN_

Most of the support that we’re giving at the moment is emotional support to people whose claims are on hold. I’m working with one young person who arrived as a fifteen year old, from Afghanistan. He is now 22. He is profoundly deaf, and is diagnosed with significant learning difficulties. He’s been turned down several times, and now he’s in an extra bit of limbo, because everything’s gone online, and it’s a really slow process.

He had one online court appearance recently. We supported him with getting online, making sure that he can understand the interpreter, and afterwards, supporting him with any questions about the process.

So that’s kind of where we stand with legal advice. We’re signposting people and supporting people to access it. To give legal advice, you need to be qualified. We have one member of staff in our organisation. It’s a small organisation, we’re only twelve or thirteen people. And mostly that person is directing people towards solicitors we work with regularly, people like Duncan Lewis, who we work with a lot.

You have mainly concentrated on helping unaccompanied minors, but I think your work has probably changed recently, has it?

Yes. In September of last year, 2020, we were told that a disused military site, Napier Barracks in Folkestone, was going to be used to accommodate asylum seekers. We were very concerned about that, for many different reasons.

We’re in a global pandemic, and having a lot of people living in a small space is a terrible idea. But also, a lot of those people will have suffered torture at the hands of military, they will have been imprisoned in places like Libya, and to put them in a place that looks like a prison—it’s surrounded by barbed wire, they’re locked in—we thought would be extremely re-traumatising for people. And it’s an isolated location, and we were worried about far right activists targeting people.

Unfortunately, all the things we were worried about have come to pass.

Why do you think the Home Office has decided to house asylum seekers in ex-military barracks?

I think it’s been very deliberate. And I’ve been proved right with the discovery of an equality impact assessment, in which Priti Patel stated quite categorically, that they didn’t want to appear too generous to people seeking asylum, so they deliberately placed them somewhere that looks like a prison.

They think that somehow this will deter people from coming, as if, bombs are dropping on your house and you go, ‘ooh, well I’m not going to go, because I am going to get housed in a barracks.’

I don’t understand the mentality. We should be doing all that we can to look after people properly. We’ve got plenty of money to do it. This is just cruel, and it’s having a real impact on people’s mental health.

The Home Office say there isn’t enough accommodation anywhere else. For the first time in quite a while, there’s a huge backlog of nearly fifty thousand asylum decisions, so presumably those asylum seekers awaiting decisions are waiting longer in accommodation. Do you think that that’s an issue?

It’s a really big issue. I do believe they could find somewhere more suitable. Hotels are not the best place, but better than a military barracks temporarily. There’s a hotel in Folkestone that has 550 rooms. The Home Office has used it before. They could have got everybody out instantly if they really wanted to.

Even before the pandemic, asylum applications had slowed down to an almost glacial pace. The backlog has got a lot worse during the pandemic. We would say that that process needs to be speeded up. The backlog needs to be cleared, and that would free up a lot more spaces in more suitable accommodation a lot more quickly. Very, very quickly.

We’ve never had asylum seekers put in camps in Britain before, although it’s happened in Australia and other countries. But has it coincided with an increased arrival of people in small boats from France, do you think?

Yes, there has been an increase in arrivals in boats, but overall the numbers of people arriving to seek asylum are down. It’s just that most of the other routes have been cut off to them, so now they use the one that works.

Could you describe what the barracks are like and what it’s like for the men in the barracks and what’s been happening in the barracks?

Napier Barracks I think date back to something like 1794. There’s a lot of talk about, ‘well they were good enough for British soldiers.’ Actually, they weren’t. They haven’t been used by British military for years, because they weren’t up to standard. They’d been earmarked for demolition. They’re in a terrible state. Cold, dark, miserable buildings.

There are signs up from when it was a military site, saying ‘Beware of the dogs’—pictures of snarling Alsatians. It is an intimidating place. Not as isolated as the barracks in Penally in Wales, but still a very isolated location.

So, they’re not locked in, then, are they?

They are now. Originally, they weren’t, but they weren’t free to come and go as they please. There was a curfew at 10pm. If you get put in a house, you’re free to come and go—it should be exactly the same for the people in the barracks. But they had a curfew, and we found gates were arbitrarily locked during the day, so people weren’t free to come and go as they pleased. Before the Covid outbreak, people were to a certain extent able to walk out of the barracks. But every time they did so, they were harassed by either far right activists, or members of the public who’d been wound up by far right activists. I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes—there’s been videos. They’ve been called n******, they’ve been told to go home, they’ve been called ISIS terrorists—terrible, terrible racist, Islamophobic abuse directed at them. It’s been a place of real fear, and not a place where any of them have been allowed to feel safe.

When you talk about far right activists, are there kind of pickets, demonstrations, protests, or is it just people passing by the barracks that shout these horrible things?

Every cloud has a silver lining, right? The pandemic doesn’t have many, but one is the fact that people can’t gather in groups. So, that has stopped a lot of the far right. There have been several far right protests. Small, because we’re not talking about large numbers of people. They don’t represent the majority of the local population. They just don’t.

KRAN organised a welcome event. Because we got so fed up with a lot of the right wing commentators saying the local population doesn’t want them here. We knew that wasn’t true, because we were getting overwhelmed with offers of help. We were getting emails, phone calls, texts. ‘What can I do to help? I’m a retired teacher, can I do something? I’ve got some blankets, can I take them down there? Can I make some food?’

It was just great, but totally at odds with what these far right commentators were saying. And in the end we decided that even though it was a pandemic, at that time we were able to have a protest.

We set about talking to the local church groups, local community groups. Anybody and everybody to see if they wanted to join us, and we ended up on a very cold October day in the middle of a pandemic with about 400 people. Playing music, holding up messages of support.

The gates were locked at the barracks, so people were not allowed out. I don’t understand why. But they’d written their own messages of thanks on banners, and there was some great to-ing and fro-ing, of cheering and friendliness and solidarity between the two groups which was great.

Because of the pandemic, we were there for about an hour, and then we moved on. I stayed to do some interviews, so I was there when the police allowed the far right counter demonstration to shuffle past afterwards, and there were 27 of them. And I’m pretty sure they weren’t all local. The people who attended our mobilisation were mostly from the local community. That to me was very telling.

Were you able to give things to the asylum seekers, the inmates?

On that day, no. It was made as difficult as possible to have that event. So much pressure was put on our organisation to cancel it.

First of all we had a phone call from the local police liaison person, then the sergeant called. Then an inspector called, and the levels kept going up. The police were saying things like couldn’t you just have this online? And I’m like ‘no, we have to have an event there—we have to physically manifest the support.’

And then the council leader wrote to the CEO of my organisation, asking her to cancel it. She said it wasn’t a good use of police resources in the pandemic, because it might attract the far right. My response to that was, well you need to deal with the far right, then.

And we had to make lots of changes. We planned to tie messages of support to the barracks fence, and we were told we had to ask the Ministry of Defence’s permission to do that, so I just said, do you know what, we won’t do that, it’s fine. It was just another obstacle that was being deliberately put in our path. And they locked the gate, so that people couldn’t mingle.

But it’s not supposed to be a prison?

And do you know what, Clara, if it was a prison, or a detention centre, there would be regulations which would govern how many people could be in a room, for example. This isn’t a prison, and it’s really important to remember that, but it’s a very interesting irony that the conditions would be better for them if they were in a prison or a detention centre because there would be regulations that would govern the accommodations they could be kept in.

Because they are in this sort of weird grey area that the Home Office have deliberately created, which is just accommodation but which they’ve made look like a prison, where they can have the gates locked on them.

Can you tell us a bit more about that, about the Covid outbreak?

We started to hear that there were cases of Covid being reported, and it was denied, or we were told that there was one case and that they’d been isolated. And then it came out that actually, out of the 415 people in the camp, over 100 were positive for Covid. Now, that isn’t containable at that point, that is out of control.

They tried everything they could to ask to be moved, peacefully. They tried having several peaceful protests. I witnessed two of them which were very heavily policed, in riot gear.

They organised peaceful protests inside the camp. They’ve made banners out of bedsheets and written messages on them, asking to be moved, saying that they’re scared about Covid. They wrote that really eloquent letter that you’ve seen. They tried engaging with the complaints process. They have tried talking to journalists and then been told that they can’t do that because it will count against them in their asylum claims—which is outrageous—but that has happened.

A hundred people were moved out of the camp. You had 415 people in a small space, over 100 positive. And they moved 100. The remaining people were told they were going to be moved, and then they got a letter telling them that actually they weren’t going to be moved. What was going to happen was to make each dorm building a separate bubble and people were going to have to stay in their dorms for ten days. Now, in those dorms there are up to 28 people.

We don’t know who is positive and who isn’t positive.

There’s lots of mental health problems. People have been put under an incredible amount of strain. There have been several suicide attempts in the barracks. And it looks like somebody snapped and set fire.

Now clearly, that’s not a great idea, but I can understand they tried everything else, and they didn’t get heard, and if you don’t give people a voice, they start to examine much more dangerous options.

After that the Home Secretary released an outrageous statement that it was an insult to taxpayers that this had happened. I’m a taxpayer, and I just think that it was extremely irresponsible of the Home Secretary to use such divisive language.

This is a situation she was warned about. She ignored all the warnings, and instead of taking responsibility, she’s tried to turn the responsibility onto the people who have absolutely no power in this situation.

I saw a report that the Penally camp—who are very well organised—that they sent money and vouchers and things for mobile phones, because there was no battery charge, so the inmates in Napier weren’t able to charge up their phones.

I didn’t see that, but all through this, I think that the people with the least power have behaved the very best. I don’t know if you saw the letter that the residents of the barracks released after the fire, to say that they were really sorry about what had happened? It was an incredibly dignified letter which I thought showed up the Home Secretary’s response enormously, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that the residents staying in Penally have done that great act of solidarity.

What I would like to happen next is that the barracks close and people move to safe and appropriate accommodation immediately, and that we never again use camps like this to house asylum seekers in. There’s a lot of pressure on the Home Secretary, but she seems to be doubling down.

We will keep campaigning, and we will keep supporting the people in the barracks in whatever way we can. We’re getting messages asking for basic foodstuffs, some tomatoes and some cheese and some yoghurt and some bread. It is ridiculous that in the fifth biggest economy in the world, people are having to message a charity to ask for food.

So, are you able to provide it? I thought everything had to go through Migrant Help—the official organisation paid for by the Home Office.

Well, we have worked to the best of our ability with Migrant Help. But what we’ve found is much quicker is when we get a request to simply message—I email the camp management, I say that I’ve had a request, and that I’m going to bring a bag of food, and to let me know if there’s a problem. And then when I’m on my way I message the resident that has requested it and make sure that they meet me at the gate. I’m not allowed in, they’re not allowed out. I can check with them briefly through the gate. I pass the bag to the G4S security guard in the gate, and they pass the bag to them and that is the only way we can get things to people.

I know that the people in Napier Barracks have had real difficulty accessing legal advice and a local solicitor firm who tried to go in there was denied access to the site. Really. It’s extraordinary. I can’t see how it’s legal.

Your work is being diverted then, more into supporting the inmates in the barracks?

I would say that we’ve doubled our work. We’re still supporting all of the young that we work with. We ran a food bank. We phone and check in, we meet people on doorsteps. I’ve had a phone call with somebody who has tested positive for Covid asking for help completing the form that he’ll need to get money for self-isolating.

We’ve got a real issue with the digital divide for the young people we work with. We could provide very effective education online, but most of them don’t have Wi-Fi in their homes, which I just think is crazy. I’d like to see them all with a decent device to connect to the internet. That would make a massive difference to their lives.

I’m looking forward to when we’re able to do community work again, because the community work is instrumental in changing attitudes locally. People have been told by politicians who should know better that there is an invasion. That these are not vulnerable refugees, that some of them are hiding in the hedgerows, waiting to start some kind of Islamic takeover of the UK. Which is, of course, nonsense, but people are frightened. And they’ve been made to be frightened.

Nigel Farage is telling them these things. Natalie Elphick, the MP for Dover, is telling them these things. I think she refers to people arriving as ‘breaking into Britain,’ as though they’re burglars. As you and I both know, it is not a criminal offence to enter a country to seek asylum. You’re entirely covered under international law to do that.

There is some kind of organisation of the far right, in Kent, and across the UK, but I don’t want to make it sound bigger than it is. It represents a fringe minority, but narratives like this are repeated by people who have positions of responsibility and should know a lot better.

In Folkestone, there is serious deprivation, and this area has been under-invested in for a long time. There aren’t enough decent jobs. And there is a real problem with getting a GP, and with getting your child a place at the nearest school, but it isn’t the fault of the people in the boats, it’s the fault of the people in government, and people have been made to be angry with the wrong people.

When we do community work and we bring the groups together and people in the community meet the young people we work with. Obviously, we do that in a considered, safe way, it breaks down so many barriers almost instantly. It removes the fear, totally, because it’s another human being. So, what I really want to do is get back to doing that kind of work, because I think that’s the best.

Do you think that the barracks will be closed down, that the campaign will be successful to close them down?

I can’t see how they can continue putting people who they have duty to look after in harm’s way. I know there are legal challenges, so I think that it will close eventually. But I would like it to be sooner rather than later, and I would like the Home Secretary to stop doubling down on her very divisive rhetoric, which is not helping.

I think under the current administration, under the current Home Secretary, things have degenerated a lot for asylum seekers. And I think that the situation is deeply, deeply shameful. I’m personally really ashamed that in Folkestone there are people being kept in conditions that are worse than prison.

First published online 4 March 2021.
  1. Asylum seekers inside Napier Barracks demonstrating. Painting based on a photograph by Bridget Chapman.
  2. Emergency services responding to the fire in Napier Barracks on 29 January 2021. Painting based on video footage broadcast by BBC South East.
This interview was conducted on 3 February 2021, and has been edited for length.
Transcription by Zoë Ranson. Illustrations by Kellie Strom.