On January 29th a fire broke out at Napier Barracks, the disused military facility being used to house asylum seekers on the UK’s southern border. Those arrested in connection with the fire had been involved in numerous protests, claiming conditions in the barracks were retraumatizing victims of imprisonment, torture and trafficking. With the lawfulness of the facility now under question, The Know investigates.
Abdulrahim says he hasn’t known peace since he was three years old. Like millions of Sudanese, he grew up in a camp under the watchful eye of armed forces and militias. Kalma was the ramshackle home to 90,000 displaced Darfuris— a hasty add-on to the prized ancient city of Nyala.
Assassinations, child rapes and abductions happened every day. “You could be walking with a friend one minute and the next minute he’d be dead in your arms,” the skinny 21-year-old recalls. “I didn’t want to die without ever knowing why.”
He escaped to Libya but was thrown into militia detention, where torture, rape and starvation were systemic. He doesn’t like to speak about those months but Dr Susanne Jaspars – a friend of Abdulrahim’s and expert in Sudanese migration – explained Darfuris like Abdulrahim are often tortured for ransom or sold into slavery to pay for their journeys to Europe.
It was only when his dinghy hit UK soil last September that Abdulrahim felt a weight leave his soul. Sudanese elders in his village had touted the UK’s humanity and strong justice system ever since he was little. Yet when he was escorted through the barbed wire gates of Napier Barracks, Abdulrahim says he wished he’d stayed at home to die.
Kent’s decommissioned military barracks is one of three such facilities being used to house hundreds of asylum seekers in the UK. The barracks have been shrouded in secrecy, with journalists denied access and volunteers made to sign confidentially agreements. Abdulrahim claims staff threatened a “black mark” on his asylum file if he spoke to the media, a file that should legally be confidential. The Home Office has rejected this allegation and said speaking publicly will not affect asylum claims.
In secret, Abdulrahim called me several times from the barracks, hoping to expose their traumatising impact on men who had been imprisoned, tortured or enslaved in the past. His protests would lead to his arrest and detention in an immigration removal centre, where he remains to date.
“Everything I do is watched and controlled,” he said tearfully down the phone a week before his arrest, “I’ve been banished to a military camp that resembles everything I fled”.
Since opening in September 2020, Napier Barracks’ record has been marred with suicide attempts and hunger strikes by residents, who describe the conditions as squalid and overcrowded. Residents have hung sheets around their beds to provide a sense of privacy, and dozens have slept outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, choosing to gamble with hypothermia over coronavirus. Abdulrahim, who joined them for a while, says he never slept more than 3-4 hours a night.
“We help each other to stay patient, but it is getting harder the longer we are in here.”
He described walking in on residents who had cut their wrists or attempted to hang themselves: “even in death there is no privacy”.
Abdulrahim’s roommates also claim conditions are re-triggering traumatic memories of their journeys to the UK.
“We are not fine. We are not those people who left our countries,” said Nima, a former resident and Iranian asylum seeker. “Terrible things happen on our journeys.”
When Nima was at Napier Barracks, he translated others’ grievances for staff, but said these fell on deaf ears.
“One man was suffering terrible flashbacks of prison and became unable to control himself. He started smashing windows until his arms broke, shouting ‘I can’t breathe anymore, I want to die’. But nothing happened to him, he’s still inside.”
The legality of confining victims of torture and trafficking is “slippery,” said Dr Juliet Cohen, Head of Doctors at charity Freedom From Torture.
She explained safeguards that apply to immigration detention – such as bail hearings and mandatory medical check-ups – are unavailable in the barracks, which the Home Office claims do not constitute detention as residents can leave once a day.
“This is a technicality,” said Dr Cohen. “Both the environment and regulations essentially make these open prisons.”
What has the Home Office said?
In a statement, the Home Office replied: “Asylum seekers are screened before being placed in asylum accommodation for vulnerabilities and safeguarding issues, and if necessary and appropriate will be placed in alternative accommodation.
“All of our accommodation sites are safe and secure, asylum seekers are provided with three meals a day and this is all paid for by the taxpayer.”
Over the course of our contact, Abdulrahim’s mental health appeared to severely deteriorated.
On 29th January, a fire and protest broke out at Napier Barracks and Abdulrahim was arrested with 13 other men, one of whom reportedly hit a guard.
They are being detained in Tinsley House, an immigration removal centre near Gatwick Airport, awaiting a bail hearing on Friday.
Ala Siddig, a translator for charity Care4Calais, reported Abdulrahim has spent days without eating inside detention, and said several of the men are suffering triggers of former imprisonment, torture and trafficking.
Following the incident at the barracks, Home Secretary Priti Patel released a statement promising “robust action against those vandalising property”.
Abdulrahim’s phone has been disconnected ever since.
How you can help
- Freedom From Torture is over halfway towards the required number of signatures to have its petition heard: sign if you believe the facilities should be closed
- Locals to the area can volunteer with Napier Friends to provide practical support to asylum seekers housed in the barracks
- Refugees At Home sources friendly, community-based accommodation for refugees, connecting people who have spare rooms with others in need – find out more here