Asylum seekers at a former army barracks have said they have been left without electricity, heating and drinking water since a fire broke out on Friday, while volunteers say they have been blocked from providing donations.
The fire started in one of the blocks at the Napier barracks site near Folkestone in Kent on Friday afternoon, prompting panic among the hundreds of asylum seekers housed inside. Fourteen men have been arrested in connection with the fire, which Kent police say they believe was started deliberately. One of the men has been charged with assault.
Since Friday, heating and electricity in all but one of the blocks has been off, according to multiple asylum seekers and volunteers who contacted the Guardian, leaving the men, many of whom have Covid-19, in freezing conditions. Drinking water supplies had not been replenished, forcing the men to drink non-potable water from the bathroom block taps, they said. The Home Office denied the allegations and said water and food had been provided throughout.
Charities have attempted to provide warm blankets and food to the men in the last 48 hours but say they were turned away by police officers and staff who are on the site, which is being treated as a crime scene. Kent police denied refusing donations and said staff on site were responsible for dealing with volunteers.
It comes as the Red Cross calls on the government to remove all asylum seekers from former barracks unless it can immediately address the unsafe and unsanitary conditions the men are being held in.
One asylum seeker at Napier barracks told the Guardian: “Since a few distressed people lost control and made a wrong choice to set one block on fire, there has been no electricity, hot water or drinkable water. It’s extremely dark and cold at nights. People can’t take a shower and we have to drink water from the toilet tap. The staff have gone except security guards and police.
“We don’t know what all of us have done that we’re being punished like this. There are sick people here and they also have to sleep in darkness with no heating. Why should the actions of a few affect all of us?”
The Red Cross, the largest independent provider of support to people seeking asylum and refugees in the UK, interviewed 101 asylum seekers held at Penally barracks in Wales for a report into conditions and makes 22 recommendations for change.
The confidential report, intended to advise the government, states that barracks accommodation can never be an appropriate form of housing for people claiming asylum, because “the majority of people seeking asylum have lived in adverse and insecure conditions, often for prolonged periods. Many people have been held against their will in prisons and other military buildings. Many have experienced abuse, violence and/or torture on these sites.”
The report identifies many specific concerns about life for asylum seekers in the barracks including one person making 11 requests for medical assistance before some was given and another waiting in pain for 20 days before being seen by a doctor. Almost half – 44% – said they felt unsafe at the barracks, while some received death threats and were racially and verbally abused by rightwing protestors.
The report finds that some of food was served raw leading to food poisoning.
“We call for urgent and immediate changes to take place starting with the closure of all sites in either Ministry of Defence bases or immigration detention estates. We do not call for this lightly,” the report states.
At least 120 men at Napier barracks have tested positive for coronavirus this month, prompting panic among residents, some of whom took to sleeping outside in sub-zero temperatures for fear of infection.
The Home Office has transferred some men to hotels in the south-east of England to ease pressure on the site and to allow for easier self-isolation.
A total of 14 people have so far been arrested following the fire and one man has been charged, police announced on Sunday. Mohammed Ali, 31, has been charged with assault by beating, using or threatening unlawful violence and criminal damage.
A spokesperson from Care4Calais, which assists the men on the site, said: “The residents have now been without heating for over two days and the camp is freezing cold. Many people are very sick with Covid and there is no doctor on site. Last night our volunteers took blankets to the site following pleas from the men but these were refused at the gate.
“It is essential that steps are taken to urgently review management of the site and provide appropriate care for those who are trapped inside.”
On Friday the remaining men received communications from Clearsprings, the private contractor that runs the site on behalf of the Home Office, informing them they would be moved to other blocks to allow for “further deep cleaning” and to help control the spread of Covid-19.
Charities and volunteers said the correspondence left the men distressed as many were hoping to leave the site, where most have been held for four months.
The Home Office said power was lost due to the fire but had been restored to most of the site and electricians continued to work on it.
A spokesperson said: “The Home Office is meeting all its statutory duties to accommodate asylum seekers. The Napier barracks site is safe and secure and we are working with our provider to repair the damage that has been done. Food and drink had been available to service users throughout.
“There are formal investigations taking place and the police have made arrests.”