Our friend Erfan endured many bleak and difficult months in Napier Barracks before finally being relocated to a place where he has at last a chance of living a dignified life, albeit a very simple one as a person awaiting his fate in the asylum process. He is dismayed that just a few short days after the last person was finally moved out of the camp, after so much effort by so many people to close the barracks completely, a new group of people seeking sanctuary was brought in by the Home Office, and the barracks are to be filled once again.
Here are his reflections on the day the first people in the new group were brought to the barracks.
Reflections from a former resident of Napier Barracks
I was held in Napier barracks for more than 3 months – the famous ex-army camp, which accommodated more than 400 vulnerable asylum seekers from last September. The prison-like accommodation, completely unhygienic and with fences all around you, made us all suffer physically and mentally. I contracted Covid-19 with half of the residents of the camp (that’s nearly 200 people) and none of us received any healthcare support at all – not even given paracetamol for our pain. We all had to share each block with around 28 people, we were sharing our bedroom together, breathing the same air and eating in groups of more than 100 residents in the same dining room. Social distancing was impossible and we all faced the consequences of being infected by the virus. The area that we were forced to live in was finally pronounced to be “run down, impoverished and filthy” by the Independent Inspector of Borders and Immigration – and he is appointed by the Home Office itself. And now, I and other former residents of Napier barracks are dealing with insomnia and anxiety as the ongoing impacts of the trauma we experienced there.
Yet on Friday 9th April, the Home Office rounded up a new group of asylum seekers from around the country and sent them to Napier barracks, despite the condemnations from so many people and organisations – the Inspector, all human rights organisations including Amnesty, Freedom from Torture, and refugee support groups from around the UK, 35 bishops from across the country, prominent figures from other faith groups, the head of the Red Cross, the former Immigration minister Caroline Nokes, and even the local MP in Folkestone who has called for the barracks to be closed. It seems that the Home Office is setting out again to fill this camp – a place judged many years ago to be absolutely not good enough for military personnel and unfit for any human habitation at all.
It hurts now, having experienced living in this miserable mass accommodation, to see these others who will soon suffer from it too. Every one of us who lived in Napier barracks are not the same people we used to be before going there. It was unbelievable for us to be treated in that way in a free and democratic country like the United Kingdom. It was really shocking to be called ‘criminals’, ‘invaders’ and ‘illegals’ when we have not committed any crime whatsoever. Many asylum seekers have to flee their country with no previous plans due to fear of torture and losing their lives. Desperate people do desperate things and risking your life to seek asylum in another country through dangerous ways of entering that country does not make anyone less genuine asylum seeker.
Moreover, not all the asylum seekers come here by boats or through a safe country. I came to the UK to study at a university, then I faced serious threats, which made me unable to go back home as torture and punishment would be expected on my arrival back to my country. I come from a country with an oppressive government, where people are commonly tortured and even executed simply for actions of political protest – even just speaking up about a problem. Living under hostile and discriminative policies was part of our daily lives. The UK and other European countries always appeared to us to be sympathetic and kind towards human beings who suffered from terrible things in their lives and are escaping from persecution and war. However, it has been absolutely shattering to find that we are being discriminated against so cruelly in a country that we thought to be the land of justice and human rights.
During our stay in Napier barracks, we witnessed various kinds of treatments, from the kindness of the charity members and some of the camp staff who were supportive, even the camp manager who treated us in a way that we did not feel he is a manager but a friend, to the ignorant and discriminative attitude of the Home Office, and at the other end of this spectrum – the far right activists standing outside the camp, whose constant harassment made us hesitant and fearful to leave it.
I believe there is goodness and a caring spirit in every one of us and that most people would not be happy to see this suffering of such vulnerable people who are fleeing their countries. I still believe the people of this country to be hospitable and kind, despite the difficulties we asylum seekers have experienced in the UK due to the extremely harsh policies of the Government. I have seen so many educated and talented people among the asylum seekers who could have been making a remarkable and really needed contribution to the society and economy of this country – doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, technicians, psychologists – and among my fellow residents there was a professional chef and even a profession basketball player. It is so important to bear in mind that asylum seekers will eventually contribute to the society that hosts them, and ignoring them and treating them as if they are less than human has consequences on all members of the community. We are building our future by writing our deeds now; let’s make the next generation of this country be proud and glad of their country being a sanctuary for those who need it.