The British government has started transferring dozens of asylum seekers to hotels to self-isolate after reports that more than 100 people housed at former army barracks in southeast England have tested positive for COVID-19.
An open letter from the asylum seekers shared by the humanitarian organization Choose Love said 120 of the roughly 400 men being housed at the Napier barracks had tested positive for the virus by the third week of January.
Britain’s Home Office — the department charged with overseeing care of the asylum seekers — would not confirm the number.
The outbreak came as no surprise to those staying at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, who’d been saying for months that the conditions in the barracks did not allow for physical distancing and proper adherence to public health guidelines and could contribute to the fast spread of the coronavirus if it made its way to the camp.
“Since I arrived here, I have been complaining,” one asylum seeker told CBC News.
“They always say the same things. They [say] everything is good enough.”
He arrived last October, shortly after the British government started using Napier Barracks as a temporary housing solution. CBC has agreed to withhold his name because he fears speaking out could hurt his immigration case.
He is in his 20s and said he had a fever, cough and body aches and was waiting to be tested for COVID-19 when he spoke to CBC news this week. He did not want to reveal his country of origin but the camp houses migrants from several countries, including Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The man said he was waiting to be tested and would not be surprised if he has the virus after “staying with infected people in the same room.”
He and others at the camp experiencing COVID-19 symptoms were “worried and frightened,” he said.
Some with negative tests moved off-site
Some immigration advocates say the number of positive COVID cases at Napier could be higher.
“From our partners and sources, we understand that it’s closer to 200 people out of 400,” said Josie Naughton, the founder of Choose Love.
“It’s been quite shocking really. We’re just pushing hard to get as many people [as possible] taken out from these places, the barracks, and to have them shut down.”
Asylum seekers at the Napier Barracks who have tested negative for the virus were being temporarily moved off-site “in order to allow others at Napier to self-isolate more easily,” a Home Office spokesperson told CBC.
The spokesperson said the Home Office made that decision in line with advice from Public Health England as a coronavirus lockdown continues to be enforced across the country.
The U.K has been experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases and on Tuesday, surpassed 100,000 deaths.
The recent outbreak at Napier comes after months of warnings from asylum seekers, immigration advocates and health experts that the conditions there and at Penally Training Camp in Wales — another military facility housing asylum seekers — posed health risks because of insufficient access to health care and a lack of compliance with coronavirus regulations.
The Napier Barracks and the Penally former army base have been used as a temporary housing solution for asylum seekers since late September. The goal is to move people out of the camps to more suitable housing as soon as possible.
Impossible to follow distancing guidelines
The man who spoke to CBC from the camp said he was one those who repeatedly warned the Home Office and Clearsprings Ready Homes, the short-term housing company tasked with managing accommodations at the camp, that he was concerned about catching COVID because of the cramped conditions there.
Sharing a dorm room with as many as 13 other men, with only curtains separating individual sleeping quarters, the asylum seeker said he and others had warned that it was impossible to follow social distancing guidelines at the camp, where common spaces and washrooms are also shared.
Even as coronavirus cases were identified at the camp, with one of the man’s dorm mates testing positive and others displaying symptoms, the asylum seeker said his pleas for the Home Office to take action continued to be ignored until this past weekend.
As the Home Office began transferring asylum seekers out of the camp Saturday, the asylum seeker was moved to a separate room at Napier after starting to show symptoms.
“I had known one person had tested positive … and he was very close to my private space, but there were several people who had continuous coughing,” he said.
On Thursday, he was told that he would be moved off-site.
Naughton said she was “heartbroken … but not surprised” by the situation at Napier.
“People were warning that this was going to happen, and now, it has happened,” she said.
In the wake of the outbreak, the U.K.’s independent chief inspector of borders and immigration (ICIBI) has launched an investigation into the use of hotels and barracks as “contingency asylum accommodation” since the start of 2020.
On Monday, the ICIBI issued a call for evidence, asking anyone with “relevant knowledge or experience” to come forward.
“This inspection … will focus on the roles and responsibilities of the Home Office and the accommodation service providers, and of other parties,” ICIBI said in a press release.
‘Everyone feels afraid’
Asylum seekers at the Penally camp say the coronavirus outbreak at Napier appears to have been something of a wake-up call for staff with Clearsprings, which also oversees accommodations at that site.
“The camp management [has taken] it very seriously now,” one asylum seeker, who also spoke on the condition of confidentiality, told the CBC. “They distributed sanitizers to every room and did some other things to prevent any possible spread.”
Workers have started wearing face masks at all times and have begun distributing food and cutlery to residents in the dining room, rather than having residents collect them.
However, asylum seekers at the camp are still sharing dorm rooms, with anywhere from two to six people per room while in common areas, including the dining area and TV room, asylum seekers say no social distancing rules appear to be enforced.
“It gets very crowded from time to time,” the asylum seeker said.
Another man living at the Penally camp told CBC he and others at the camp fear an out break like the one at Napier.
“Everyone feels afraid, never [being] able to social distance here,” he said. “We fear our camp will be like Kent.”