AAlmost a year after the pandemic, it can be easy to forget how much power we have given to our governments. While the public health reasons for doing so are obvious, the danger persists that measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus will become ways to contain populations that states consider inconvenient or inconvenient.
If you want to know how that is, pay close attention to the UK asylum system. On Friday afternoon, a serious fire broke out at Napier Barracks in Kent, one of several former military sites that were repurposed last year by the Home Office as emergency accommodation for asylum seekers. Fourteen people have been arrested in connection with the fire, which Kent police say they believe was started deliberately.
For months, charities, activists and some of the residents themselves have been trying to raise the alarm about the conditions inside these camps: there are complaints, denied by the Interior Ministry, that access to Legal advice and medical care is delayed or obstructed, while overcrowded conditions hinder social distancing. In January, a Covid outbreak swept through Napier, where several hundred men have been living in dormitories that house up to 28 people in a single room. The outbreak caused panic among residents, with some insisting on sleeping outdoors despite the January weather. To reduce overcrowding, officials moved some residents of the barracks; the fire broke out shortly after Clearsprings, the private housing contractor that runs the site on behalf of the Home Office, told the remaining residents that there were still men on the site with Covid-19 and that they would not be allowed to leave.
The Interior Secretary’s response was to opt for nationalist coups. Within hours of the fire, Priti Patel issued a statement condemning the damage at Napier as “deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country.” The site, Patel continued, had previously housed “our brave soldiers and army personnel,” and it was “an insult to say that it is not good enough.” In early January, Patel’s immigration minister Chris Philp appeared to blame residents for the Covid outbreak. telling the Independent that it was “incredibly disappointing that prior to this a number of people declined testing and refused to isolate themselves or follow social distancing rules.”
However, the Home Office itself acknowledges that it is using the barracks – aside from Napier, people are housed in former military sites in Wales and Norfolk – in part to make sure asylum seekers don’t feel too comfortable. The department itself equality impact assessment The scheme states that “less generous” support is “justified by the need to control immigration” and that better conditions “would undermine public confidence in the asylum system.”
Then what is? Are conditions at Napier right for British soldiers, or are they bad for reassuring the public? The government’s rhetoric is incoherent, but hides a broader pattern. Emergency responses to the pandemic are more likely to cause harm when applied to groups of people who are already stigmatized or discriminated against. In spring 2020, the Roma communities of Bulgaria and Slovakia they were objective with special quarantine measures that include police controls and surveillance with drones; a report posted last fall by the European Center for Roma Rights found “an increase in institutional racism and discrimination” since the beginning of the pandemic in 12 European countries.
In the Mediterranean, meanwhile, the pandemic led Italy and Malta to close their ports to ships rescuing migrants in distress. Europe has been cracking down on search and rescue operations for several years, but this accelerated the process, leading to several situations in which ships were stranded at sea. In September, I reported on the case of the Maersk Etienne, a commercial oil tanker that had been adrift for a whole month after being instructed to participate in a rescue, because no country would allow it to dock.
These damaging responses build on pre-pandemic failures, and UK asylum camps are no different. Although last year’s moral panic over the ships in the Canal gave the impression of an increase in the number of people seeking asylum, the number that arrived in 2020 was roughly similar the previous year. What is really happening is that the asylum system is coming to a halt. Delays in processing people’s claims were already increasing in 2019, and the pandemic has exacerbated it: according to the latest government statistics, around 46,000 people are waiting more than six months for an initial decision on their asylum application, perhaps the largest backlog of orders in two decades.
Today, as many as 9,500 asylum seekers They live in temporary hotels throughout the UK. (Last year, a series of deaths in Glasgow prompted calls for a public investigation.) The situation has attracted the attention of right-wing agitators. In August, the Ministry of the Interior He apologized for “operational failures” that led to asylum seekers being placed in a hotel in Essex’s own Patel constituency in Witham, after Nigel Farage posted a video filmed outside the hotel, prompting a backlash from the right. Napier, along with a similar site in Penally in Wales, opened a few weeks later.
For now, the camps house only a minority of asylum seekers, but their use is as symbolic as it is practical. As former conservative immigration minister Caroline Nokes said on Tuesday, the government is using barracks to make the UK seem “as difficult and inhospitable as possible”, a place where asylum seekers are being “segregated into a ghetto” .
This action of immigration control has real costs. The barracks are not only a threat to the well-being of those forced to live there: a recent Red Cross report warned that ex-military sites were an inherently inadequate form of accommodation for people who may have been abused or tortured before arriving. to the United Kingdom; they set a disturbing new precedent. Camps must be closed before segregation becomes the norm.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism