Press release: Doctors call for closure of military barracks housing asylum seekers amid health concerns
Published 26th November 2020
Housing asylum seekers and survivors of torture and modern slavery in military barracks during a global pandemic is clinically inappropriate and puts migrant lives and public health at risk, warn UK healthcare professionals.
They have written to the Secretary of State for the Home Office and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to urge them to close barracks housing asylum seekers in England and Wales amid growing concern about conditions in the camps, residents’ complex health needs and poor access to healthcare, and the lack of COVID-19 measures in place.
The joint letter has been coordinated by Doctors of World, Freedom from Torture and the Helen Bamber Foundation and signed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Faculty of Public Health.
“As organisations representing medical professionals and patients, we are writing to raise concern about the use of Ministry of Defence (MoD) sites to house people seeking asylum and survivors of modern slavery,” they said.
“We believe that these sites are unsuitable for this purpose due to the lack of access to adequate and appropriate healthcare services, the public health risks resulting from a lack of compliance with the COVID-19 regulations, and the risk of re-traumatisation triggered by accommodation in former military barracks.
“We call for an end to the use of MoD sites as accommodation for migrants.”
In September, the government commissioned previously disused MoD sites at Penally in Pembrokeshire, Wales, and Folkstone in Kent, England, as accommodation for people who are seeking asylum in the UK. Despite being defined as contingency (temporary) accommodation, the Home Office announced that the sites will be used for 12 months, with 665 people to be accommodated across both sites.
Doctors of the World, Freedom from Torture and the Helen Bamber Foundation have been working together to provide support to residents, who would otherwise have little to no access to healthcare, despite the high prevalence of complex physical and mental health needs among the asylum seeking population.
“During a pandemic, it’s more important than ever that people can easily seek advice and care from a GP to avoid unnecessary pressure on emergency and hospital services.”Anna Miller, Head of Policy and Advocacy, Doctors of the World UK
They have grown increasingly concerned about conditions in the camps and the health and welfare of residents, with a suicide attempt at the Kent site last week.
“We are hearing concerning reports of poor mental health among residents leading to suicide attempts, self-harm and unrest within the barracks,” said Dr Jill O’Leary, lead doctor for the Helen Bamber Foundation’s medical advisory service.
“The sudden and unexpected diversion of hundreds of new residents to the barracks with very little notice for the local health boards places them under immense strain at a time when health services
are already overburdened. Local health boards have had to work incredibly hard with no extra funding or prior consultation to try to identify and address these needs.”
Dr O’Leary said the sites also appear to be completely ill-equipped to maintain social distancing measures and adequate hygiene, posing a major public health risk.
“Residents are staying in very large, shared dormitories, with shared bathrooms and washing facilities. They have been moved in from all around the country and we have reason to believe many have not been able to self-isolate prior to their arrival,” she said.
Anna Miller, Head of Policy and Advocacy at Doctors of the World UK, said: “It is outrageous and irresponsible that in the middle of pandemic, when the British public is making great sacrifices to stop the spread of COVID-19, the Home Office has decided to move people across the country from safe accommodation where they could socially distance and isolate when needed, into shared dormitories.
“We are also concerned that the 600 plus people accommodated in these barracks can’t register with a GP and are largely reliant on first aid and paramedic call outs. GPs play an essential role in managing everyday conditions and regular medications, picking up health problems early and keeping people out of hospital. During a pandemic, it’s more important than ever that people can easily seek advice and care from a GP to avoid unnecessary pressure on emergency and hospital services.”
“People who have survived such horrors deserve compassionate, trauma-informed care by experienced practitioners.”Dr Jill O’Leary, lead doctor for the Helen Bamber Foundation’s medical advisory service
Dr O’Leary, along with other concerned clinicians and lawyers from Doctors of the World, Freedom from Torture, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Forrest Medico-Legal Services, has been meeting remotely with local volunteers. They aim to enhance health and vulnerability screening assessments for residents to identify individuals who are most at risk of the deleterious effects of living in the barracks.
“I assessed a young man from Yemen who had been imprisoned and tortured by the state. He travelled from Yemen across Europe before arriving in the UK to seek asylum,” said Dr O’Leary.
“His solicitor contacted me due to concerns about his deteriorating mental health since being moved to the barracks. The military environment causes him to experience flashbacks to his time spent in prison and he suffered insomnia as well as severe anxiety as a consequence.
“He had physical health needs that were not being met in this accommodation including lack of access to pain relief as he suffered chronic pain as a result of his torture. It was clear that his mental and physical health were deteriorating rapidly due to being in the barracks and he was thankfully relocated once a letter of clinical concern had been written.”
Dr O’Leary, who has a background in working with refugees in the Moria refugee camp in Greece and Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, said while she was able to help this man get the care and support he needed, she was extremely concerned about those who remained in the camps and the impact that this lack of adequate healthcare would have on their wellbeing.
“Many residents may be victims of trafficking or torture. They may be fleeing persecution or conflict in their home countries and are likely to have endured a horrific journey to reach the UK,” she said.
“People who have survived such horrors deserve compassionate, trauma-informed care by experienced practitioners. We are concerned that these issues are not being identified and the level of healthcare provided is not adequate to address such complex needs.”
“The mark of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, this government should be ashamed it is failing so badly.”Dr Juliet Cohen, Head of Doctors at Freedom from Torture
Dr Juliet Cohen, Head of Doctors at Freedom from Torture, said: “The barracks are entirely unfit for survivors of torture and trauma. A prison-like environment, crowded accommodation, and lack of privacy, particularly in the bathroom, can all trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as increased frequency of flashbacks or nightmares of traumatic past experiences, increasing the risk of self-harm and suicide. The mark of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, this government should be ashamed it is failing so badly.”
Today (Thursday, November 26), Jennifer Blair, Co-Head of Legal Protection at the Helen Bamber Foundation, will present the group’s concerns to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention at a panel event examining the route through which the Home Office is processing people arriving by small boats across the Channel.
But they also felt the need to write directly to the Home and Health secretaries, Priti Patel and Matt Hancock.
“Healthcare professionals have a duty to protect and promote health and wellbeing,” they said. “As organisations representing healthcare professionals in the UK, we are committed to promoting equality and fundamental rights in healthcare and cannot ignore a policy that is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of those seeking sanctuary in our country.
“Given the lack of adequate health provision for those accommodated in the sites and the inappropriateness of former barracks as housing for people fleeing persecution and survivors of torture, as well as the current public health risks, we urge the government to immediately end the use of MoD sites as accommodation for migrants.”
For more information or to arrange interviews, please contact Kimberley Vlasic at KVlasic@doctorsoftheworld.org.uk.