"Volunteers have been asked to sign confidentiality agreements underpinned by the Official Secrets Act before entering an army barracks used to house asylum seekers, as details emerge of the “disturbing” conditions on the site.
The Home Office has been accused of attempting to cover up what is happening at Napier barracks near Folkestone, Kent, where there have been hunger strikes, suicide attempts, unrest and regular medical emergencies among residents.
Volunteers providing warm clothing, amenities, company and counselling to the 400 men housed on the site have been confronted with the confidentiality form by the private firm running the repurposed site on behalf of the Home Office.
The agreement, seen by the Guardian, commits the signatory to treating as confidential any information about the “service users” at the site – that is, the asylum seekers – and states that the information is subject to the Official Secrets Act, which is designed principally to protect matters of national security. A breach of the act is punishable by a prison sentence.
Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action, said: “The Official Secrets Act is intended to protect state secrets and national security, not the government’s treatment of people who have arrived in the UK seeking sanctuary.
“Locking people up at an old army barracks is inappropriate enough, without trying to gag those who volunteer to provide basic essentials to those in need. We’ve heard reports of self harm, suicide attempts, Covid outbreaks and cramped and unsanitary dorms, meaning more – not less – public information is needed about this seemingly reckless experiment.”
Sonia Lenegan, the legal director of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said it sounded like a cover-up. “What else could it be?” she said. “It’s sinister. What reason could there be for that non-disclosure agreement otherwise? The Home Office should be doing all they can to facilitate organisations helping people. Why would you want to prevent that?”
Lenegan said the move had echoes of the approach the Australian government took to its offshore detention centres on the Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru.
She said: “This is yet another trick they’re pulling from Australia. They did this for people working on Nauru and Manus Island. Over and over again they’re learning from Australia’s playbook.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have worked closely with our accommodation provider Clearsprings Ready Homes and stakeholders to ensure the Napier site is safe and secure. This includes an agreement with staff to provide asylum seekers with privacy and confidentiality as would be expected.”
Insiders said relations between the asylum seekers and authorities are reaching boiling point, as the men are being “kept in the dark” about how long they will be kept there.
On Wednesday evening, an Iranian man was taken to hospital after attempting to take his own life. Kent police confirmed they had assisted the ambulance service and no one had died. It is understood there has been at least one other attempted suicide in the barracks.
Another resident, a Sudanese asylum seeker, refused food for at least four days after repeatedly seeking answers about when he would move out of the former military camp. He is understood to have broken the hunger strike on Tuesday. The Home Office said it did not routinely comment on individual cases.
Police were called to angry scenes on Monday when the men protested over lack of information from the Home Office and contractor. No arrests were made but video footage revealed tense confrontations between the residents and security staff.
One resident, who spoke to the Guardian, was taken to hospital after contracting coronavirus while staying at the barracks. A freedom of information request submitted by the Guardian to South East Coast ambulance service NHS foundation trust revealed that ambulances were being called to the site on a weekly basis.
The Home Office has commissioned Clearsprings Ready Homes to run the site but the Guardian has learned the company, which is responsible for large swathes of asylum accommodation across the south of England, has subcontracted at least some responsibilities for day-to-day management to a letting agent and property management firm called NACCS.
An individual connected to the barracks said: “Housing severely traumatised and vulnerable asylum seekers in a crumbling former military barracks behind barbed wire with no idea how long they will be there, with little to do, and under strict surveillance, is a disaster: it’s a disaster for their mental health, for their physical health, and is exacerbating a profound sense of despair and hopelessness.
“They are told by the Home Office they will be there for a maximum of 30 days but many have been there for over two months. There is evidence of many inappropriately placed individuals at the facility, who are at increased risk in a facility of such size.
“Imagine how it feels to arrive in the UK – the end of the line – after fleeing war, persecution, famine, trafficking and other horrors, only to find yourself treated like a criminal.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the wellbeing of asylum seekers extremely seriously and those at Napier barracks are staying in safe, Covid-compliant conditions, in line with the law and social distancing requirements.”"