Six asylum seekers formerly housed at Napier Barracks have won a legal challenge against the Government after a High Court judge found their accommodation failed to meet a minimum standard.
The former Army barracks in Kent have 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.
During a two-day hearing in April, the men’s lawyers said accommodating asylum seekers at the “squalid” barracks was a breach of their human rights and could amount to false imprisonment.
On Thursday, Mr Justice Linden ruled in favour of the men and found that the Home Office acted unlawfully when deciding the former military camp was appropriate.
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 men’s lawyers had argued that moving them to the former Ministry of Defence camp “exposed them to an exceptionally high risk” of contracting 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.
This came after PHE told the Home Office that “opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier” was not supported by guidance in September.
Mr Justice Linden referred to overcrowding and the failure to follow PHE advice as among the reasons the barracks were unlawfully unsuitable, finding it was “virtually inevitable that large numbers of residents would contract Covid-19”.
“It was also irrational, in itself, 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.”
Campaigners including Liberty and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, who both intervened in the case, have called for Napier Barracks to be shut down.
The judge 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.”
Mr Justice Linden’s judgment does not force the barracks to close, and the Home Office is now considering its next steps.
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.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “During the height of the pandemic, to ensure asylum seekers were not left destitute, additional accommodation was required at extremely short notice.
“Such accommodation provided asylum seekers a safe and secure place to stay. Throughout this period our accommodation providers and sub-contractors have made improvements to the site and continue to do so.
“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.”