MailOnline: Police launch arson investigation as migrants set fire to Kent army barracks

MailOnline: Police launch arson investigation as migrants set fire to Kent army barracks

Article by Katie Feehan, James Fielding, James Robinson and James Tapsfield for MailOnline - published 29 January 2021

Priti Patel has tonight slammed the behaviour of migrants being held at a former army barracks, amid reports that a 100-strong group started a riot, torched buildings and threatened staff at the temporary asylum seeker site.

The Home Secretary strongly condemned the unrest at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, and police launched a probe after the disturbance, which reportedly broke out when migrants were told they would no longer be transferred to hotels following a Covid outbreak.

Ms Patel described the behaviour of those involved as 'deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country' and said it was an 'insult' to suggest the site, formerly home to British soldiers, was 'not good enough' for asylum seekers.

An arson investigation has been launched by Kent Police after the blaze caused a significant amount of damage to at least one part of the site, where hundreds of asylum seekers have been living - but the fire is now under control as crews stay on site to dampen out remaining hotspots.

Ms Patel promised 'robust action' against the instigators, as she summoned a Gold Command meeting of senior officials to discuss the incident this evening.

It comes as dramatic footage from the scene shows large plumes of smoke billowing into the sky above the barracks this afternoon.

Dozens of emergency service workers were at the scene as huge flames engulfed at least one of the buildings. Officers believe the fire was started deliberately but added the incident is not being treated as a riot.

Detective Chief Superintendent Andrew Pritchard said: 'We are carrying out inquiries and working with partners including the Home Office and Kent Fire and Rescue Service to establish the circumstances surrounding this serious incident and the identities of those who may have been involved.

'Whilst the exact nature of the disturbance and any potential links to the fire are still being investigated, it would be inaccurate to refer to the disturbance as a riot and it is not being treated as such. There have been no arrests but inquiries are ongoing.'

The barracks have been used by the Government to house 400 asylum seekers since September, despite concerns from human rights charities about the conditions.

Around 120 people living within the accommodation - which primarily houses migrants who have crossed the Channel in dinghies from France - have recently tested positive for Covid, according to migrants at the site.

Sources told MailOnline that the asylum seekers who had tested positive for Covid had been moved elsewhere yesterday to ease pressure on the site.

But they say those who remained became 'angry' that some had been allowed to leave and a 'riot' was started involving around 100 migrants.

It is believed the incident began in the dinning room of the facility, after asylum seekers received a letter from operator Clearsprings telling them they would be staying at the barracks and would be locked down for at least 10 days.

According to the Home Office, the migrants became 'aggressive, turned violent and began to set about destroying the barracks'.

Sources said staff were barricaded into a room, although they managed to get free, while windows were smashed and a building was set on fire.

Damian Collins, MP for Folkestone and Hythe, tonight told MailOnline there was 'no excuse' for the incident and said he had been assured by the Home Office that a 'full police investigation would be launched'.

He said: 'There can be no excuse for what has happened there. The fire could have led to loss of life and I would like to thank our emergency services for the way they took charge of the situation.

'The Home Office have assured me that there will be a full police inquiry into the events at Napier Barracks leading up to the fire, and that those found to be responsible will face criminal charges.'

Meanwhile, Ms Patel labelled the unrest as 'insulting', saying: 'The damage and destruction at Napier barracks is not only appalling but deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country who are providing this accommodation while asylum claims are being processed.

'This type of action will not be tolerated and the Home Office will support the police to take robust action against those vandalising property, threatening 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.'

She added: 'I am fixing our broken asylum system, and will be bringing forward legislation this year to deliver on that commitment.'

A MailOnline source said that those found to have been involved in the incident could have it used against them by the Home Office in their asylum applications.

The historic military site that once housed soldiers on their way to Europe in the First World War: A history of Napier Barracks

Napier Barracks is part of the larger Shorncliffe Army Camp near Cheriton, Kent.

The wider-camp was first established in 1794, when the area it is now build upon was purchased by the British Army.

The camp was home to the famed Light Division, who were trained there by Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore in 1803 before fighting under the Duke of Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars.

Napier Barracks itself wasn't developed until 1890, when the camp was developed into a series of unit lines.

The wider Shorncliffe site was used during the First World War as a staging post for soldiers preparing to join the Western Front.

In 1915, 60,000 Canadian troops were based in Shorncliffe. The camp also hosted a military hospital.

Again in the Second World War, the site was called upon as a staging post for soldiers preparing to join the fight in Europe.

And it was visited in 1939 by Queen Mary, the wife of the then British monarch King George V.

The Shorncliffe site has hosted various units over the years, including The Royal Gurkha Rifles - which it still hosts today.

Much of the Shorncliffe site however has now left Ministry of Defence hands, with the Shorncliffe Garrison now part of a 1,200 home housing development.

Last year the Home Office secured a one-year deal to use Napier Barracks as accommodation for migrants.

The site is for single male migrants only, with no women or children allowed.

The site has its own medical team and provides food for migrants being kept there while their asylum claims are assessed.

Tensions have risen in recent days after a coronavirus outbreak hit the site, prompting some residents to reportedly sleep outside for fear of contracting Covid-19.

Migrant charity Care4Calais said the incident had been sparked by an 'upsetting afternoon' for those living at the site - which is used as a hostel for single male migrants while their asylum claims are assessed.

Claire Moseley, from the charity, told MailOnline this evening: 'There was a disturbance in a dining hall in which tables were overturned and some time later another section of the barracks was set alight.

'There has been a lot of anger at living conditions at Napier, which many migrants have told us are extremely poor.

'There is also a serious coronavirus outbreak there at the moment.

'More than 100 migrants were moved off site a few days ago and those left behind were hoping to follow suit however the letter sent to them this morning has effectively ruled out any more transfers.

'On top of that Clearsprings say they are also making changes to their social bubbles within the blocks where they've housed.

'Understandably this has caused a lot of fear and trepidation that people may end up being grouped together with someone who has Covid.

'Tension has been rising over the last few weeks and it's been exacerbated by a lack of communication and transparency.

'Many of the migrants in the camp have been left in shock at seeing the smoke and flames and now fear the trouble will adversely affect their asylum applications even though they were not involved in any way.'

Others at the scene have said residents staying at the barracks are terrified and likened the area to a 'war scene'.

Pictures from the scene show dozens of emergency services in attendance including police and ambulance crews.

One Napier Barracks resident said that when the fire broke out he saw that one of the accommodation blocks was full of smoke with people inside.

He and some friends tried to get them out but firefighters arrived after around 15 minutes and helped rescue them.

In that time the blaze spread to another building, he said.

'Everyone is panicked,' said through a translator, adding that he fears something similar may happen again in future.'

Migrants living in the camp tonight told MailOnline how their poor living conditions meant that trouble was 'predictable.'

A 26-year-old, who declined to give his name but said that he had come from Iran, explained: 'As you know some people were transferred from the barracks this week a d we received a letter today that those who remain in the camp have to isolate themselves within their bubble for 10 days before it will be decided if they're going to be transferred.

'I think that's why the protests began in the afternoon. And then the fire occurred in one of the blocks.

'It was a horrible thing to happen. I want to say how some of us are sorry and sad for this to happen and especially for the staff who work here.

'People here are desperate and disappointed after receiving no response from the Home Office about their condition and the covid outbreak.

'Each person responds differently and as some people here are struggling mentally, it was predictable that something was going to happen soon.'

Another migrant living in the barracks said the fire had burnt down 'block six' after a disturbance had earlier flared outside the building.

The 21-year-old Iraqi, who has been living in the camp for four months after reaching Kent on a boat from France said: 'I saw smoke coming from the roof of block six, which started off quite small but gradually grew bigger and bigger until I started seeing flames.

'There had been some sort of protest before, I think, in the dining area, which had been badly damaged. Tables had been pushed over and windows broken before the protest carried on outside with bins also being overturned.

'The living standards here are not good. The food is bad, the beds are not comfortable and we have to share one toilet and bathroom among 28 men.

'We want to leave here, especially as there is a serious outbreak of Coronavirus. I don't want to get it but I fear I may do if I stay in the camp. That looks to be the case now as we were told today that all transfers are being halted at the moment.'

Last night a Kent Police spokesperson told MailOnline: 'We were called to a report of a disturbance at Napier Barracks in Folkestone at around 2pm on Friday 29 January.

'There was also a report of a fire in one part of the building. Officers are at the location, along with Kent Fire and Rescue Service.

'At this stage there have been no reported injuries and enquiries remain ongoing to determine the cause of the fire and establish whether any offences have been committed.'

Napier Barracks was converted into an asylum seeker hostel after the Home Office secured a one-year deal with the Ministry of Defence to lease the site in September last year.

The site is used to house asylum seekers while their claims are reviewed and was acquired as a temporary measures to allow the Home Office to deal with a backlog of cases.

More than 8,000 migrants crossed the English Channel from France last year - more than four times the number in 2019.

Tory MP Damian Collins says there can be 'no excuse' for the actions of those behind the disorder at Napier Barracks.

Mr Collins, who represents Folkestone, hit out at those behind the incident, saying the fire 'could have led to loss of life'.

He also thanked emergency services for their response.

In a statement sent to MailOnline, he said: 'I have discussed the situation at Napier Barracks this afternoon with the Home Office. There can be no excuse for what has happened there.

'The fire could have led to loss of life and I would like to thank our emergency services for the way they took charge of the situation.

'The Home Office have assured me that there will be a full police inquiry into the events at Napier Barracks leading up to the fire, and that those found to be responsible will face criminal charges.'

'The asylum claimants staying at Napier Barracks were in a facility that was safe and secure, where they were being provided with food and shelter at the taxpayers' expense. This is a difficult time for the whole country and these actions have put more strain on public resources.

'Alongside the police investigation into the events at Napier Barracks there will also be a review of the security of the site and the use of the remaining facilities there.'

As part of Covid-19 regulations, those being taken to Napier Barracks will have been held in other facilities for at least two weeks. The site also has its own onsite healthcare team, while catering teams provide meals for asylum seekers.

A petition to close the camp in Kent and a similar facility in Wales has racked up more than 18,000 signatures after it was launched a week ago.

Charities have repeatedly raised concerns about conditions inside Napier Barracks and Penally Barracks in Pembrokeshire since they were taken over by the Home Office last year.

Last week refugee charity Choose Love, who shared an open letter claimed to be signed by 200 migrants inside Napier Barracks, claimed hundred of migrants were suffering similar 'prison-like' conditions at Penally Barracks.

In the open letter to 'all British citizens', the migrants of Napier Barracks slammed Home Secretary Priti Patel and Immigration Minister Chris Philp for 'intentionally ignoring us and trying their best to cover the disaster which is happening in this army camp'.

The letter added: 'It is vital to understand that no one choose to leave the country that they born in, no one choose to leave their family and loved ones behind.

'We came to this country to save our lives. Lives which were mostly in danger because of war and prosecution.

'Yet we found ourselves in an army camp and we are surrounded by fences and security guards.'

Meanwhile Freedom from Torture launched a petition to empty the barracks in Kent and Wales and close them down racked up more than 10,000 signatures in less than two days.

Kolbassia Haoussou, Lead Survivor Advocate from the UK-based charity, said: 'We are horrified at the news of a fire at the former army barracks in Folkstone being used to house asylum seekers. We hope all residents, staff and emergency workers are safe.

'Only today Freedom from Torture and other groups wrote to the Home Secretary to urge her to close the barracks immediately. Nearly 20,000 people have signed our petition to close the camps in the past few days.

'By mocking the vulnerability of asylum seekers, the Home Secretary would rather shirk responsibility and play politics with people's lives.

'Many of the people trapped here suffer from severe mental health issues and low immune systems linked to the abuse they have fled. The camps are unsafe, unsanitary and unfit to house vulnerable people.

'The government must close the camps now and transfer everyone to safe, Covid-secure accommodation without delay.'

A spokesman for the Kent Refugee Action Network told Kent Online: 'We don't yet know exactly what has happened but what we do know is the barracks are unsafe with many cases of Covid being confirmed, and positive cases sharing dorms with those who had tested negative.

'Those inside were at risk and becoming more and more desperate at the lack of action. It should have already been emptied and closed down.

'Had the Home Office heeded the calls to act urgently we would not be in this position now.

'We hope all residents, staff and emergency workers responding to the situation are safe.'

Bella Sankey, director of charity Detention Action, echoed calls to shut the barracks 'before they are engulfed by tragedy'.

Over the weekend, it emerged that a coronavirus outbreak had ravaged the Kent site with 120 thought to have tested positive.

A number of migrants were reportedly evacuated from the site this week and taken to alternative accommodation in a bid to control the outbreak.

But some migrants who had been left behind and are still negative claimed they were being forced to share rooms with Covid-positive patients.

There are reports of asylum seekers carrying out hunger strikes in protest against the 'unbearable conditions in the camp', which is said to include 34 people sharing one shower.

A large group of around 50 also chanted 'freedom' during a protest holding makeshift signs and painted bedsheets to let their feelings be known.

There have been further reports of suicide attempts in the Army barracks as mental health among its occupants deteriorates.

Just yesterday charity campaigners poured fake blood near to the entrance to the site as a protest at the alleged treatment of migrants.

The Home Office, which took over the site last year, insisted the accommodation in Kent is 'safe, suitable, (and) Covid-compliant'.

At the weekend the department said that a number of asylum seekers were being moved from Napier Barracks 'temporarily' into self-isolation facilities.

Copyright 2021 Damian Collins. All rights reserved

Promoted by Stephen James for and on behalf of Damian Collins, both of Folkestone & Hythe Conservative Association both at 4 West Cliff Gardens, Folkestone, Kent CT20 1SP


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