Blaze breaks out amid tensions over COVID-19 outbreak in U.K. army barracks housing asylum seekers

A fire broke out at a former military barracks being used to house asylum seekers in Britain on Friday as tensions over the government's handling of a recent coronavirus outbreak at the facility flared. 

U.K. government had started transferring some of those who tested negative to hotels to self-isolate

Emergency services attend the scene of fire at Napier Barracks, in Folkestone, Kent, in southeast England. More than a quarter of the 400 asylum seekers being housed at the barracks have contracted COVID-19, according to reports from those inside. (Gareth Fuller/PA/The Associated Press)

A fire broke out at a former military barracks being used to house asylum seekers in Britain on Friday as tensions over the government's handling of a recent coronavirus outbreak at the facility flared. 

No injuries were reported in the immediate aftermath of the blaze, which unfolded at the Napier barracks in Folkestone, Kent, in the southeast of England where hundreds of asylum seekers have been held for months. 

As many as 400 men had been living at the facility until this week, with dozens of people being transferred to hotels and other accommodations in response to a COVID-19 outbreak at the camp believed to have affected more than 100 asylum seekers. 

In a tweet, British Home Secretary Priti Patel appeared to blame those who had complained about conditions at the camp for the fire, branding the incident "deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country."

Without naming anyone, Patel said:

"This type of action will not be tolerated, and the Home Office will support the police to take robust action against those vandalising property, abusing staff and putting lives at risk."

"This site has previously accommodated our brave soldiers and army personnel — it is an insult to say that it is not good enough for these individuals."

People stand in an open area of the barracks after fire services arrived to put out the blaze. (Gareth Fuller/PA/The Associated Press)

The British government had started transferring dozens of asylum seekers to hotels to self-isolate after reports that dozens of people housed at the barracks had tested positive for COVID-19.

But the charity Care4Calais said those who are still at the camp have been told they will have to remain on-site for a 10-day quarantine period at least.

Asylum seekers had warned of crowding

An open letter from the asylum seekers shared by the humanitarian organization Choose Love said 120 men at the Napier barracks had tested positive for the virus by the third week of January. 

Britain's Home Office — the department charged with overseeing care of the asylum seekers — would not confirm the number.

The outbreak came as no surprise to those staying at Napier Barracks who'd been saying for months that the conditions in the barracks did not allow for physical distancing and proper adherence to public health guidelines and could contribute to the fast spread of the coronavirus if it made its way to the camp. 

"Since I arrived here, I have been complaining," one asylum seeker told CBC News.

"They always say the same things. They [say] everything is good enough."

He arrived last October, shortly after the British government started using Napier Barracks as a temporary housing solution. CBC has agreed to withhold his name because he fears speaking out could hurt his immigration case.

Sleeping quarters divided by curtains at the Napier Barracks. Some asylum seekers said it's difficult to follow COVID-19 social distancing guidelines inside the camp. (Name withheld)

He is in his 20s and said he had a fever, cough and body aches and was waiting to be tested for COVID-19 when he spoke to CBC news this week. He did not want to reveal his country of origin but the camp houses migrants from several countries, including Syria, Iraq and Iran. 

The man said he was waiting to be tested and would not be surprised if he has the virus after "staying with infected people in the same room." 

He and others at the camp experiencing COVID-19 symptoms were "worried and frightened," he said.

Some with negative tests moved off-site

Some immigration advocates say the number of positive COVID cases at Napier could be higher. 

"From our partners and sources, we understand that it's closer to 200 people out of 400," said Josie Naughton, the founder of Choose Love.

"It's been quite shocking really. We're just pushing hard to get as many people [as possible] taken out from these places, the barracks, and to have them shut down."

Asylum seekers at the Napier Barracks who have tested negative for the virus were being temporarily moved off-site "in order to allow others at Napier to self-isolate more easily," a Home Office spokesperson told CBC. 

Housing at the Napier Barracks is divided into blocks, with every block consisting of two dorm rooms and shared access to toilet and shower facilities. Typically, as many as 14 people share dorm rooms. Asylum seekers say they had feared the tight quarters could contribute to the spread of COVID-19. (Name withheld)

The spokesperson said the Home Office made that decision in line with advice from Public Health England as a coronavirus lockdown continues to be enforced across the country.

The U.K has been experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases and on Tuesday, surpassed 100,000 deaths.

The recent outbreak at Napier comes after months of warnings from asylum seekers, immigration advocates and health experts that the conditions there and at Penally Training Camp in Wales — another military facility housing asylum seekers — posed health risks because of insufficient access to health care and a lack of compliance with coronavirus regulations.

The Napier Barracks and the Penally former army base have been used as a temporary housing solution for asylum seekers since late September. The goal is to move people out of the camps to more suitable housing as soon as possible. 

Impossible to follow distancing guidelines

The man who spoke to CBC from the camp said he was one those who repeatedly warned the Home Office and Clearsprings Ready Homes, the short-term housing company tasked with managing accommodations at the camp, that he was concerned about catching COVID because of the cramped conditions there.

Sharing a dorm room with as many as 13 other men, with only curtains separating individual sleeping quarters, the asylum seeker said he and others had warned that it was impossible to follow social distancing guidelines at the camp, where common spaces and washrooms are also shared.

The British government has started transferring dozens of those who have tested negative to hotels to self-isolate. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Even as coronavirus cases were identified at the camp, with one of the man's dorm mates testing positive and others displaying symptoms, the asylum seeker said his pleas for the Home Office to take action continued to be ignored until this past weekend. 

As the Home Office began transferring asylum seekers out of the camp Saturday, the asylum seeker was moved to a separate room at Napier after starting to show symptoms. 

"I had known one person had tested positive ... and he was very close to my private space, but there were several people who had continuous coughing," he said. 

On Thursday, he was told that he would be moved off-site.

Inspector investigating

Naughton said she was "heartbroken … but not surprised" by the situation at Napier. 

"People were warning that this was going to happen, and now, it has happened," she said.

In the wake of the outbreak, the U.K.'s independent chief inspector of borders and immigration (ICIBI) has launched an investigation into the use of hotels and barracks as "contingency asylum accommodation" since the start of 2020.

Josie Naughton, the founder of London-based charity Choose Love, says she is heartbroken but 'not surprised' by the coronavirus outbreak at the Napier Barracks. (Choose Love)

On Monday, the ICIBI issued a call for evidence, asking anyone with "relevant knowledge or experience" to come forward.

"This inspection ... will focus on the roles and responsibilities of the Home Office and the accommodation service providers, and of other parties," ICIBI said in a press release.

'Everyone feels afraid' 

Asylum seekers at the Penally camp say the coronavirus outbreak at Napier appears to have been something of a wake-up call for staff with Clearsprings, which also oversees accommodations at that site.

"The camp management [has taken] it very seriously now," one asylum seeker, who also spoke on the condition of confidentiality, told the CBC. "They distributed sanitizers to every room and did some other things to prevent any possible spread."

The dining area at the Penally Training Camp in Wales, where asylum seekers say they fear an outbreak like the one in Napier. (Name withheld)

Workers have started wearing face masks at all times and have begun distributing food and cutlery to residents in the dining room, rather than having residents collect them. 

However, asylum seekers at the camp are still sharing dorm rooms, with anywhere from two to six people per room while in common areas, including the dining area and TV room, asylum seekers say no social distancing rules appear to be enforced. 

"It gets very crowded from time to time," the asylum seeker said. 

Another man living at the Penally camp told CBC he and others at the camp fear an out break like the one at Napier.

"Everyone feels afraid, never [being] able to social distance here," he said. "We fear our camp will be like Kent."


Chantal Da Silva is a Canadian-British journalist who considers Toronto and London home. She typically writes features on immigration, human rights issues and politics.