LONDON: An outbreak of COVID-19 at an asylum-seeker holding center in the UK has led to hundreds of people being locked inside as part of blanket quarantine measures that campaigners and residents have called “dangerous.”
The disused Napier Barracks in Kent is home to around 400 people, including medically vulnerable individuals, who have been warned they face arrest if they attempt to leave.
It is alleged that asylum-seekers sleep more than 20 to a room, with just curtains hung between them for protection, and small communal bathrooms and eating areas.
A Yemeni at the site told The Independent newspaper that he had displayed symptoms of COVID-19 but had yet to receive any test results, and had not eaten since midday on Jan. 17.
He said he had been confined to a dormitory with 28 others, some with symptoms, but none had been able to isolate.
“People with coronavirus have been allowed to live normally among other refugees. Some people aren’t wearing masks and social distancing isn’t always followed,” he added.
“I’m scared. Yesterday and this morning I didn’t go to get my food because I was too scared and I feel unwell. One guy in this dorm has been coughing a lot in recent days and has fever. The conditions here risk the spread of coronavirus. I just fled the war from Yemen and I came to the UK to seek safety, but in the end I might end up dying from coronavirus in a barracks.”
Another Yemeni man in the same dormitory said: “It was a big mistake putting this many people together in same place. We should be moved as soon as possible. This is dangerous and it’s damaging our physical and mental health.”
Lawyers have written to the UK Home Office saying the conditions are illegal, and accusing the government of trying to “avoid scrutiny.”
There have been calls for the barracks to be closed, and for the asylum-seekers to be moved to accommodation that allows them to isolate effectively.
Bridget Chapman of the Kent Refugee Action Network said: “The Home Office was so determined to use ex-military facilities to appear tough that they ignored all the warnings. Now we’re in a situation where people who should’ve been safe have been put at risk.”
Chris Philp, the UK minister for immigration compliance, said the number of cases at Napier Barracks is “small,” adding: “We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously, and asylum-seekers can contact the 24/7 helpline run by Migrant Help if they have any issues.”