Original article from Kent Live
The debate, held yesterday (June 10), came after the High Court ruled the Home Office had acted unlawfully in housing asylum seekers at the barracks near Folkestone.
Both Home Secretary Priti Patel and Under-Secretary for the Home Office, Kevin Foster MP, did not attend, with the latter not present due to a family bereavement.
In their absence Chris Philp MP, who grew up in Orpington, represented the Home Office.
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Throughout the debate, a number of familiar topics emerged: from criticisms made by Public Health England and the British Red Cross to emotive comments over whether the barracks, which were built during the First World War, were still fit for purpose.
Very few concrete answers emerged however. The High Court ruling seemed to have done little more than reinforce the Home Office's position that it had nothing to apologise for, in spite of its recent loss.
As a result, there weren't many material takeaways from the debate.
Instead there were a few key themes that demand further inspection.
Below we explore the four biggest misconceptions about Napier Barracks tackled in yesterday's debate and the truth behind them.
1. 'If the barracks were good enough for troops, then why aren't they suitable for refugees?'
This emotionally-charged question came up a number of times.
However, ignored by many who asked this question was the point made by the Chief Inspector of Prisons following an inspection in Feburary 2021.
The independent inspectors found that the conditions at Napier were "impoverished, run-down and unsuitable for long-term accommodation."
The High Court ruling did side with the Home Office, stating that the accommodation was not "squalid" and was closer to adequat.
However this does not mean lodgings are perfect – and they have been described as "less than pristine".
Critically – as one MP pointed out – if it had been soldiers and not refugees living in conditions that caused "a significant risk of harm or self harm and attempted suicide" and saw a COVID outbreak with over half of the inhabitants getting infected, the issue may well have been taken more seriously by the responsible office.
There have been several occasions of Napier residents reporting they felt suicidal, had self harmed, or even attempted to end their own lives while staying at the accommodation.
Prior to use in 2020, the barracks had been unused for four to five years by the military.
It was already scheduled for redevelopment after a 2014 report indicated that the buildings "were never intended for long-term use," and conversion of the existing blocks was "unsuitable".
In September 2020, shortly before the use of the accommodation to house refugees, permission was granted to developer Taylor Wimpey who planned to demolish the barracks and redevelop the area.
These details indicate that, on many levels, the buildings may not have been appropriate for long-term housing of vulnerable people.
2. 'If Napier Barracks is so bad, why do people still come to the UK to seek asylum?'
This question is commonly asked in relation to dangerous Channel crossings.
The reasons for people wanting to settle in the UK are varied, but among them include social pulls like family connections, knowing the language of the country they are headed to or a national reputation for tolerance.
Though several MPs emphasised that nations like Italy, Germany and France are all safe places, many refugees may have relatives in the UK, meaning their best bet isn't settling in mainland Europe but finding community among family or those from their country of origin.
The far-right has also been on the rise across Europe, with political parties like Marine Le Pen's National Rally, Germany's AfD and the Italian Five Star Movement gaining momentum in recent years.
Meanwhile Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban is an explicitly anti-refugee head of government.
This shift in attitude may mean that that refugees have legitimate reasons to believe the political climate in many European countries is hostile towards them.
And, as many can probably sympathise, moving to a new country is scary enough, let alone going somewhere where you don't know the language and don't have family by your side.
3. Home Office 'did everything in our power to provide shelter for those in need'
This was the most often repeated line from Chris Philp MP during yesterday's debate, emphasising that the accommodation was acquired on short notice and improvements were made as quickly as possible to make it fit for purpose.
However, there is a large amount of evidence contradicting this statement.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons' report aside, advice from Public Health England and The British Red Cross was that the facilities could not be made COVID-safe while continuing to operate as shared dormitories.
The provisions at the time left no room for individuals to socially distance effectively, with 28 people to a single room before adjustments were made.
This number later fell to a still crowded 14.
The advice from Public Health England as disclosed in the ruling was that the maximum number of people in a dormitory should be six.
Given this, and that the lack of isolation facilities that meant site-wide lockdowns were needed in the event of an outbreak amounted to "unlawful imprisonment", according to the judge's ruling.
The idea that Napier was the best that could be done is questionable in the light of the ruling.
There were also warnings that the barracks was not fire-safe before a blaze erupted in January.
When pressed to comment on this, Chris Philp MP stated that the Home Office "Make[s] absolutely no apology" for its efforts.
4. On the suitability of Napier Barracks for those fleeing war and torture
Even if these details aren't representative of Napier after adjustments have been made – which the Home Office has repeatedly insisted have taken place – one issue remains unaddressed.
Many of those living at Napier are fleeing countries such as Eritrea, Sudan or Syria, which have experienced ongoing humanitarian crises and civil wars in the last decade.
The presence of yoga sessions, footballs or a library at Napier Barracks – all of which were brought up repeatedly in the Parliamentary debate – does not erase the fact the building itself is a military facility.
This fact is troubling given the asylum seekers placed at Napier often have trauma related to conflict and war.
Bridget Chapman, of Kent Refugee Action Network has argued that Napier itself risks "retraumatising," those who have had negative experiences in a military context and is unnecessarily reminiscent of the conditions refugees have attempted to flee.
Contrary to these suggestions from activists, debate in Parliament saw the reassessment of human rights law brought up as a means to remove the "blockage" to the Home Office's new, desired system.