Shocking pictures show 'filthy' rooms where 200 asylum seekers caught COVID during mass outbreak

Rebecca Speare-Cole
·5-min read
The photos, which show filthy mattresses and cramped rooms, were taken during an independent inspection of Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire and Napier Barracks in Kent.
The photos, which show filthy mattresses and cramped rooms, were taken during an independent inspection of Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire and Napier Barracks in Kent. (ICIBI)

Shocking pictures have revealed the “filthy” accommodation where asylum seekers have been forced to live amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The photos, which show dirty mattresses and cramped rooms, were taken during an independent inspection of Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire and Napier Barracks in Kent.

The findings, which were published on Monday, describe "decrepit", "impoverished" and "cramp" conditions at both sites.

Watch: ’Oh my god!’: MP’s reaction as government admits extent of COVID outbreak in asylum seeker accommodation

They have been used as "emergency" accommodation since September, despite Public Health England and Public Health Wales warning the Home Office that they were unsuitable, especially for the long-term.

MPs were left stunned when the government admitted that almost 200 asylum seekers caught coronavirus while staying at Napier Barracks in January and February alone.

In response to calls for an investigation from charities, healthcare professionals, lawyers and MPs, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration (ICIBI) visited the sites on 14 February and 4 March, assisted by the Prison Inspectorate.

Read: ’Oh my god!’: MP’s reaction as government admits extent of COVID outbreak in asylum seeker accommodation

Dormitories at Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire, Wales. (ICIBI)
Dormitories at Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire, Wales. (ICIBI)

In their report, the independent inspectors said they found that asylum seekers at both sites said they were suffering from mental health problems such as self-harm and feeling depressed due to their circumstances.

The findings also added there was “inadequate support” for those who self-harmed or for those at risk of self-harm, who were put in a “decrepit ‘isolation block’, which we considered unfit for habitation”.

Other issues raised included the “impoverished” and “filthy” state of the buildings.

Asylum seekers have been forced to live in
Accommodation at Napier Barracks in Kent. (ICIBI)

The inspectors said: “The environment at both sites, especially Napier, was impoverished, run-down and unsuitable for long-term accommodation.”

“Cleanliness at both sites was variable at best and cleaning was made difficult by the age of the buildings,” they added. “Some areas were filthy.”

During the COVID-19 outbreak at Napier, more than 100 people were confined to their dormitories for approximately four weeks, the report said.

They were allegedly unable to leave except to use the toilets or showers and were warned they might be arrested if they left the camp.

Asylum seekers were forced to live in
Accommodation at Penally Camp. (ICIBI)

Meanwhile, residents told inspectors about how they felt trapped in poor conditions amid fears that leaving would jeopardise their only source of support and possibly their asylum cases.

The report also said that the “cramped communal conditions” and “unworkable cohorting” at Napier meant that a large-scale COVID outbreak was “virtually inevitable”.

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In response to a survey carried out during the inspection, none of the respondents at Napier said they felt they had been kept safe from COVID-19.

The survey also found that the vast majority at Penally Camp said they did not feel protected from the virus.

In terms of COVID measures, the inspectors found the multi-occupancy dormitories at both sites were cramped, making effective social distancing difficult.

Watch: Asylum seekers at Kent camp speak out - 'we were treated like criminals'

Asylum seekers were forced to live in
Washrooms at Penally Camp.

Priti Patel had previously defended the conditions that the asylum seekers were forced to live in as well as the COVID measures.

During the Home Affairs Committee on 24 February, she was questioned about how the overcrowded dormitories could not be compliant with social distancing measures.

The home secretary said that the department had “been following guidance in every single way” when it came to COVID measures in the accommodation.

But home affairs committee chair Yvette Cooper responded to this with outrage, saying: “Oh my God! You had 178 cases at a centre that had dormitory accommodation of over 20 people in those dormitories.

Dormitories in Napier Barracks. (ICIBI)
Dormitories in Napier Barracks. (ICIBI)

“That looks like pretty clear evidence to me that those dormitories were not COVID-safe if you managed to generate within them 178 COVID-positive cases.”

She added: “On what planet did you think that in the middle of a COVID crisis, it was safe or sensible to put over 20 people in a dormitory so they were all sleeping together in the same room with the same air overnight each night?”

Permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft responded to this by reiterating that the department was “following the guidance at every stage and the guidance was to ensure there was as much space as possible, certainly two metres between beds”.

In a further exchange, Patel was asked if her department had "seen the faces of those people who you put in that unsafe accommodation".

She responded: “Every single individual that comes into the care of the Home Office, they have personalised support and that happens at the initial stages of their own personal assessments.”

She said the Home Office had tried to meet social distancing guidance at the barracks but that "people were also not following the rules".

An isolation room in Napier Barracks. (ICIBI)
An isolation room in Napier Barracks. (ICIBI)

Cooper called this response "astonishing" and said Patel was "effectively blaming those people for not following the rules when they were put in accommodation where they had to sleep with 28 people to a room".

A Home Office spokesperson said: "As the home secretary has set out, our asylum system is broken. That is why we will bring forward proposals which are fair but firm.

“During these unprecedented times we have met our statutory duty to provide asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute, with suitable accommodation and three meals a day all paid for by the British taxpayer.

“We expect the highest possible standards from our service providers and have instructed them to make improvements at the site."

Watch: Priti Patel promises 'biggest overhaul of asylum system in decades'