The High Court will hear a legal challenge brought by six asylum seekers previously housed at a former army barracks who claim conditions at the site pose “real and immediate risks to life”.
The Napier Barracks in Kent has been used to accommodate hundreds of asylum seekers since last September, despite the Home Office being previously warned by Public Health England that it was unsuitable.
Almost 200 people tested positive for coronavirus during an outbreak at the barracks earlier this year, senior Home Office officials told MPs in February.
At an earlier hearing, also in February, the High Court heard asylum seekers at the barracks were left “powerless to protect themselves” against Covid-19 because of the Home Office’s failures to “prevent the spread”.
Lawyers representing the six men, all said to be “survivors of torture and/or human trafficking”, also said there was “a mental health crisis” at the barracks, with four residents having attempted suicide and others having self-harmed.
They argue the Home Office is unlawfully accommodating people at the barracks, where conditions pose “real and immediate risks to life and of ill-treatment”.
On Wednesday, a two-day hearing concerning the lawfulness of housing asylum seekers at Napier Barracks will be begin at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
In February, lawyers for the Home Office conceded that the majority of the men’s claims were “arguable” after documents which undermined its written defence were discovered shortly before the hearing.
The six men’s lawyers told the court at that hearing that the Home Office “knew or ought to have known of the impossibility of effective means of controlling or containing infection at the barracks”.
Shu Shin Luh, representing two of them, said there are “present and continuing” risks to asylum seekers at Napier Barracks.
But, she said, the Home Office “chose to accommodate asylum seekers during a Covid-19 pandemic in accommodation against the advice of Public Health England”.
Tom Hickman QC, representing the other four claimants, said Public Health England “warned the Home Office on September 7 2020” – before asylum seekers were moved into the barracks – that they were “not suitable for use”.
But Mr Hickman said the “advice was rejected”, adding that his clients’ underlying mental illnesses had been “triggered or exacerbated” at the barracks.
In March, inspectors found people at high risk of self-harm were found in a “decrepit” isolation block at Napier Barracks that was “unfit for habitation”.
They added: “Given the cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier, once one person was infected a large-scale outbreak was virtually inevitable.”
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention has also recently launched an inquiry into the Home Office’s use of “large-scale, institutional sites”, such as Napier Barracks, to house asylum seekers.
However, Home Secretary Priti Patel and immigration minister Chris Philp have both previously defended the use of such sites.
In a statement before the hearing, Sue Willman – a solicitor at law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, which represents four of the claimants – said: “Asylum-seeker clients living at Napier all winter said they felt unheard and forgotten about.
“This week’s trial is a chance to hear about what they experienced.
“We hope the judge will conclude that the conditions in the barracks were unlawful because they violate the right of anyone seeking asylum in the UK to a basic standard of living and humane treatment.”
Clare Jennings, a solicitor at Matthew Gold & Co – which represents the other two claimants – said: “For over four months our clients, and their fellow residents at Napier barracks, endured what they describe as unbearable ‘prison-like’ living conditions.
“They shared dormitory accommodation with up to 13 other men, and bathrooms with too few toilets and showers.
“In January of this, year Covid-19 spread like wildfire through the barracks – an outbreak that was all but inevitable given the cramped communal living conditions within the barracks.
“We hope that the court will determine that accommodating our clients in the barracks was unlawful and breached their human rights and provide justice for our clients.”
On Tuesday, a Home Office spokesman said steps have been taken to improve conditions at Napier Barracks, adding: “While pressure on the asylum system remains, we will continue to make use of Napier Barracks.
“Asylum seekers are staying in safe, suitable, Covid-compliant conditions, where they receive three nutritious meals a day.”
The hearing before Mr Justice Linden will begin at 10am on Wednesday and is expected to conclude on Thursday.
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