By Jan Holben
On 14th September F&HDC announced that Napier Barracks on the Sandgate and Cheriton border, would be turned into an ‘assessment and dispersal’ open facility for asylum seekers, with the first 25 young males arriving one week later on 21st September. Local people were justifiably angry and concerned at the lack of consultation when news broke and F&HDC quickly arranged a virtual meeting for 25th September. Representatives from the various involved agencies, including F&H MP Damian Collins attended the zoom meeting so questions could be answered.
Leader of the council Cllr Monk chaired the virtual meeting and introduced participants – he said that hundreds of questions had been received which had been summarised into 7 main areas of concern.
MP Damian Collins spoke to a number of concerns raised by local people – including how the camp is to be run, how access in and out of the camp is managed and how community issues are addressed.
1) Choice and use of site – why was Napier Barracks chosen?
Deborah Chittenden (Home Office) expressed regret that this decision, which had been taken rapidly, had damaged the relationship with F&HDC and its residents and expressed a hope that the relationship could be rebuilt. She explained that UK is legally obliged to provide supported accommodation for asylum seekers while their claim is being processed. With Covid national lock-downs earlier this year they were forced to take the decision to suspend all movement. This decision, along with new asylum seekers arriving daily caused a crisis creating the urgent need to find extra accommodation quickly – two sites had been proposed by the MOD – one in Wales and Napier Barracks just outside Folkestone.
2) Health matters – what arrangements are in place to manage Covid-19?
Allison Duggal (KCC Public Health England) said that the asylum seekers had all been in the country for more than 14 days, and were Covid tested. Furthermore, they have all been briefed on the ‘rule of six’ especially when they are outside, and that they should wear face-masks when in shops. She said in the unlikely event there was a Covid outbreak of more than 1 person at the Barracks an immediate ‘outbreak control meeting’ would take place to decide necessary action. To ensure social distancing each ‘dormitory’ within the Barracks is treated as a ‘household’. Allison said that is monitored daily so that the necessary public health actions could be taken immediately. There is also a nurse on site to ensure any physical or mental health problems for asylum seekers is addressed.
3) Site facilities – what is on site, and will additional services need to be provided?
Steven Lakey (Clear Springs Ready Homes) said that asylum seekers have TV and Wi-Fi on site plus sports equipment – so plenty to keep them occupied. A local voluntary sector organisation provides English language lessons on site too. Covid management processes are in place for on and off-site with hand sanitiser and face masks provided.
4) Security and safety – what controls are in place to manage people coming and going?
Steven Lakey went on to say that on the site Security team will control people leaving or coming into the site, and will remind asylum seekers that they are required to be in the Barracks accommodation overnight. He went on to say that although there is no national curfew, and the asylum seekers are not being detained – however if they aren’t back in the Barracks by 10pm the Security team will call them on mobile to conduct a welfare check, and remind them they must be in the Barracks overnight.
5) Community matters – what extra community security safety measures will be in place?
Chief Superintendent Nigel Brookes told how the Police will continue to monitor crime rates and will work closely with all stakeholders as well as listening to community groups concerns. He reminded local people that local crime could be reported via the Police website which can also be accessed on mobile too (www.kent.police.uk/ro/report/ocr/af/how-to-report-a-crime/).
Nick Willkinson (KCC Prevent) talked about social media and how it played a part in influencing views with misinformation and biased content. He advised always check sources and ask yourself are images manipulated, is the narrator biased, is it helpful, is it respectful.
6) Health and well-being – what measures will be put in place to ensure the safety of those living in the barracks & what is the asylum process?
Helen Bransfield (Asylum Svcs, Migrant Help) explained that her Team are their to provide support to migrants – they provide face to face support, or interpreters if required. They will ensure all literature is translated and they provide a support escalation process via their 24/7 contact centre if required. Steven Lakey went on to explain that asylum seekers had a medical assessment before they arrived at Napier Barracks and those with particular vulnerabilities remained at the main London accommodation.
7) Local offers of support – how can local people help and support those living in the barracks?
Cllr David Monk mentioned the many offers of help received from local people and Helen Bransfield said that an email address would be set up to capture these offers of help.
To round the zoom meeting up Deborah Chittenden stressed again that it was the responsibility of the Home Office to provide accommodation and support for any person who enters the country destitute. Andy Kelly (Resettlement & Asylum Support) explained the process includes an assessment of personal circumstances, country of origin, reports of persecution and serious personal harm. After which formal interviews took place to determine if the case would be refused or granted. He said that although Covid had caused the process to slow down – they would be ramping up the volume of these interviews. In response to earlier questions from MP Damian Collins, Deborah Chittenden explained that asylum seekers in full accommodation are not given a cash allowance, although they may have their own money. If asylum seekers are in self catered accommodation they are given a small allowance for food and clothes. Asylum seekers are not allowed to seek work for the time they are in the asylum process, but if their case takes longer than 12 months, occasionally they are permitted to seek work. Deborah said asylum seekers could, however, do volunteer work and she had been encouraged to hear about volunteer opportunities.