The government began transferring asylum seekers from hotels to the Wethersfield Camp, a former military site, on Wednesday 12 July, on the same day but in advance of court proceedings to challenge the decision.
Forty-six men were transferred on Wednesday and the site is expected to accommodate 1,700 by the autumn. Those accommodated in the camp are all expected to be single males. The government has given local councils and health services some additional funding to cope with increased demand, but the local council has declared the site unsafe and far-right protestors were, allegedly, already congregating at the site.
Home Office lawbreaking
In June 2022 following a case of judicial review, the judge Justice Lieven found the Home Office had acted unlawfully in its use of Napier barracks as accommodation for asylum applicants. The judge found that the government (Priti Patel was the home secretary at the time) had acted legally in initially opening the site, during Covid in 2020 and under emergency powers, but that its extended use had been unlawfully commenced without appropriate consultation with local people for longer term use.
Justice Lieven found “there is a very significant difference between a development which is proposed to continue for two months and one for five years”, especially given the size, scale and environment of the camp and “large, segregated accommodation for male asylum seekers on the edge of town has obvious potential to create tensions within the community”. She was also concerned about the pressure on local services given the number of people likely to be accommodated at the site and the arrangements for increased service provision were not convincing.
Use of Wethersfield
The current case against Wethersfield camp is broadly similar. The home secretary has given herself permission to use the site for twelve months under emergency powers but it will be very difficult for the Home Office to argue that there is an emergency. The number of asylum applicants has risen in the past few years, but in a very predictable and stable pattern.
The immigration inspectorate has been highly critical, since pre-covid 2019, about the management of asylum cases and accommodation, especially at Napier barracks. It found that the Home Office’s continued treatment of the problem as an ‘emergency’, rather than as a chronic steady state to be consistently resourced and managed was mostly to blame for failing to improve systems and accommodation.
The hotel accommodation brought forward during Covid would be perfectly sufficient now and a lot cheaper, were it not for the delays in the asylum processing system which have risen from 6 months to four years since 2020. The number of asylum seekers in the system has risen to about 160,000 from just under 30,000 in 2019, at a cost of £6mn a day.
Over the same period the speed of decision making has slowed. Home Office staff are demoralised and feel unsupported in their decision-making roles and staff turnover across the immigration department is high. Robert Jenrick’s order to overpaint murals at the Kent Intake Unit (and after a recent immigration inspection report commended staff at the centre for the progress they were making in providing a more humane and efficient welcome that he had seen in previous reports) will have shattered morale further.
It is also evident that the government intends to use the site for the longer term, not an emergency measure, for up to 12 months, as the law allows it to do. Jenrick, the immigration minister, said that the move is part of a plan for a “more orderly, cost-effective and sustainable system for accommodating asylum seekers, which not only is more manageable for communities but will also help reduce the incentives for people to travel through safe countries”.
Home Office: getting away with it?
The Home Office attempted similar tricks with Napier. It lawfully used its powers to use the site as a temporary measure for 12 months and by-pass planning consents. It then attempted to use emergency powers to extend Napier’s use without having attempted over the course of the previous year to apply for planning permission, consult appropriately, or seek any other solution. In the Napier case, the Home Office tried to argue that, had it conducted a proper equality assessment, their conclusion was likely to be the same and so the court should not quash the legality of the camp. Justice Lieven disagreed. She said:
“I do not consider that this is a case where a fresh decision is highly likely to be the same and that quashing the decision would merely lead to a waste of time and money … given the concerns raised about the impact on community relations of the use, and the complete absence of analysis of the effects of that use over five years on community relations, I am not in a position to say there would be ‘no difference’ to the decision [and an assessment]…might well lead to a need to put further investment into those resources in ways that would reduce community impacts.”
Once again, the Home Office is ignoring and riding roughshod over the concerns of the local community and local agencies. In placing asylum seekers in Wethersfield camp on the day of the hearing’s commencement it is showing contempt for the court, perhaps deliberately so. It has had more than enough time and advice on how to manage the system better but has chosen instead to squander its resources and political capital on forcibly deporting a few hundred refugees to Rwanda rather than fix the broken system. The only emergency is that of the Home Office’s own making.
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