29 January saw a fire in Napier army barracks, in Kent, which is being used to house several hundred asylum-seekers. Simultaneously the site was in the middle of a Covid-19 outbreak, with over 130 positive cases. Clearly the poor, cramped living conditions are driving waves of deadly infection.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s response? Assume the fire was a deliberate act of arson (without evidence) and rubbish claims that the accommodation was at all sub-standard (because it was fine for soldiers, despite having been uninhabited for ten years).
The same issues are raised by the Home Office plans, only just withdrawn, to temporarily house two hundred asylum-seekers at Yarls Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire. People were originally supposed to be moved in before Christmas, but local pro-migrant campaigners had been actively resisting this. None had yet been placed there. Putting anyone in immigration detention at all is barbaric, and additionally Yarl’s Wood was built miles away from any support services, without reliable transport.
Those two hundred people were to be told they are “free to come and go”, but with a curfew and a warning not to go to any nearby villages. Detention in all but name.
The living conditions in hotels are preferable to those of detention centres and army barracks, but that doesn’t mean they are decent. The Liverpool Echo has reported on the food being provided to asylum-seekers in hotels by outsourcing giant Serco. Some were referred to as “unidentifiable mush” and others far below any reasonable nutritional standards. What it is deemed acceptable to provide asylum-seekers is grimly visible. Without the right to work, and with a weekly stipend of little over £5 a week, they are dependent on these “meals” to survive.
At the root of all this is is the Home Office’s desire to make life as miserable as possible for asylum-seekers, as a deterrent to them arriving and staying. There are reports of people crammed into Napier barracks fleeing the UK. Internal Home Office documents confirmed this situation only days ago, revealing that ministers justified not providing decent conditions for asylum-seekrs since doing so could “undermine public confidence in the asylum system”.
In addition, of course, there are profits being made. With the smash-and-grab nature of outsourcing during this crisis, private firms are raking it in from the immiseration of asylum seekers. Serco will be making millions from malnourishing asylum-seekers. Clearspring Ready Homes’ contract with the Home Office is worth £1bn, despite the insecure, unsafe accommodation they have provided.
The camps of all kinds should be emptied and shut down, and decent accommodation provided to all asylum-seekers, in normal areas, with the right move freely, and full and equal access to ordinary financial support and services. Local Labour Parties and union branches should raise calls for this, like that made by Tonbridge and Malling CLP here. The labour movement should link up with migrants’ rights and asylum-seekers’ groups to make the biggest fuss we can, while also fighting for the party to commit to the pro-migrant changes demanded by Labour conference in 2019.
At the moment Labour, as on so many issues, has little to say.
Our movement needs to hold the government to account over their atrocities, build solidarity with those detained and malnourished, and continue the fight to overturn the whole system of detention.
• Josh Lovell is a Labour Campaign for Free Movement committee member, writing here in a personal capacity